When Thanksgiving’s profile grew from a harvest festival in New England to a full-fledged national holiday, Texans had a hard time nailing down exactly when to celebrate.
The holiday was first celebrated in 1621 at Plymouth, Mass., and it was celebrated informally throughout the U.S. in the two centuries that followed. But Texas was a Spanish, then French, then Mexican territory in those days.
Texas first codified the holiday as a state just a few years after it was annexed to the United States, when Gov. George T. Wood declared the first Thursday in December as a day for Texans to give thanks by “abstaining from all secular employments.”
A year later, the next governor decided he knew better.
Gov. P.H. Bell issued a proclamation in 1850, calling on Texans to do the same, even seemingly cribbing some of Wood’s language – namely the bit about “abstaining from all secular employments.” Bell's reasoning for the giving of thanks? There was neither a plague nor a war going on.
"We are exempt from the disaster of intestine or external wars; universal health pervades the land; the horn of plenty is full; and the fountains of religious life and knowledge are open to the humblest citizen," he said.
For this purpose, therefore, I, P.Hansbrough Bell, governor of the state of Texas, do hereby set apart the first Thursday in March next as a day of Thanksgiving to Almighty God, and recommend that the same be observed by the people of this state by abstaining from all secular employment; and all the officers of the state are requested to close their offices and transact no business upon that day.
In testimony whereof, I have hereunto set my hand and caused the great seal of the state to be affixed at Austin the thirty-first day of December in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and fifty, and of the Independence of the United States the seventy-fifth, and of Texas the fifteenth.
So, Bell decided that the first Thursday in March would be Texas’ Thanksgiving.
Texas’ decision to pick March was rooted in its days as a republic.
In the days after Texas’ independence, then-President Sam Houston declared March 2, the then-country, now-state’s independence day, as the national day of thanksgiving in 1842 – though, it had a decidedly more pious purpose. Houston called on Texans to fast, worship and celebrate Texas’ victory over Mexico because Texians "have been objects of the peculiar care and interposition of a Divine Providence.”
Underpinning all of this is the fact that some historians believe the first Thanksgiving celebration in North America occurred in El Paso de Norte in 1596 – decades before the Puritans landed at Plymouth Rock.
In that celebration, Spanish colonizers celebrated with the indigenous Mansos tribe in what is now the El Paso area. That celebration occurred on April 30, 1598.
President Abraham Lincoln cleared some of this up at the national level, establishing Nov. 26 as the national day of thanksgiving in 1863.
Later, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt established the third Thursday in November as the official day of Thanksgiving in 1941, cementing the modern celebration.