Thanksgiving, that cherished American tradition celebrating family, encompasses a second, more fervently cherished American tradition — that of the Long Weekend.
The history of Thanksgiving, the one learned in grade school, usually involves some combination of Pilgrims, Indians, friendship and corn. The history of the long Thanksgiving weekend involves lobbying and practicality. And a women’s magazine editor from New Hampshire.
The first federally endorsed Thanksgiving holiday was the one proclaimed by George Washington in 1789. More than 70 years later, Abraham Lincoln issued his own proclamation. But between those events were decades of relentless lobbying and letter-writing campaigns by Sarah Josepha Hale, a New Hampshirite who made it her life’s mission to formalize the then-ad hoc holiday. (She also wrote “Mary Had a Little Lamb.”)
In Hale’s mid-19th-century heyday, “the only American holidays were Independence Day and Washington’s birthday,” says Penny Colman, who wrote “Thanksgiving: The True Story.” “And those were both military holidays — full of bombs and explosions.” Hale wanted a holiday that would honor domestic tranquility and not, you know, blowing stuff up. Additionally, she wanted it on a Thursday.
Partly, that was to honor George Washington, whose own proclamation had been Thursday-scheduled. The other part? To honor housewives. “Thursday is the most convenient day of the week for a domestic holiday,” Hale wrote in one of her dozens of Thanksgiving editorials. What with all of the washing on Mondays and ironing on Tuesdays, Thursdays seemed like the best opportunity for a homemaker to prepare a meal and still get to hang out with her visiting family.
Hale’s letters are credited with ultimately bending Lincoln’s ear and prompting him to standardize the Thursday feast. Had she opted for Wednesday or Sunday, the country might not know the joys of awkwardly long family gatherings or waiting in line at 5 a.m. on Black Friday for Best Buy’s deeply discounted television sets.
A practical solution
What does a long weekend do, anyway? Psychologists (and the travel industry, naturally) have said that several short breaks can do a body more good than one big one. Humans need downtime, frequently, which the United States is notoriously bad at providing its workers. In international vacation comparison charts, the United States is always pitifully incompetent when it comes to time off — 13 days per year to Britain’s 26 or Italy’s 31, in one survey last year — the idiot brother of relaxation.