For most Rehoboth Beach, DE residents, the account of the first Thanksgiving is the Plymouth Colony story rather than the French or Spanish versions (their giving thanks celebrations started a century earlier). But since the Pilgrims’ first Thanksgiving took place in September—and the second official U.S. Thanksgiving took place in February—you might wonder why this week’s Rehoboth Beach, DE Thanksgiving wound up being celebrated on this particular Thursday in November. Coming up with the answer is less than simple…
Starting with that first Plymouth Colony feast, for the 50% of the Pilgrims who survived the first winter below the creaking decks of the Mayflower, there certainly was ample reason to be grateful. By their second October in the New World, they had been able to erect shelter on dry land and raise sufficient food stores to confidently face the approaching winter. They’d even succeeded in negotiating a mutual defense treaty with the local Wampanoags. Once the colonists found themselves, as they wrote, “so far from want”— it was definitely party time!
That was in 1621, and for more than the following century, various Thanksgiving celebrations were observed in different regions of the country. These were often thought of as New World versions of European harvest festivals. Since those were offshoots of ancient Pagan rituals, they were often frowned upon by those favoring more religious observances.
This week’s Rehoboth Beach, DE Thanksgiving Day is a more direct offshoot of the uniform national holiday whose legal roots go back 240 years. In 1789, the new Union’s first Congress petitioned the President to declare a day “of public prayer and thanksgiving.” George Washington obliged, and on November 26, 1789, the first national holiday was observed. A quick Googling of that date verifies that, yes, it was the 4th Thursday in November. But that proclamation was only for that one-time observance—the next Thanksgiving wasn’t proclaimed until six years later, when Washington declared a day of thanksgiving be held on Thursday, February 19.
Nowadays, Rehoboth Beach, DE Thanksgivings are always celebrated on the 4th Thursday in November—a designation signed into law in 1940. Washington’s 1789 version had been ambiguous about Thursday: in 1789, it was both the 4th and last Thursday. Whenever there are five Thursdays in November, designating the last one results in a merchant-enraging shortening of the pre-Christmas shopping season. Proclaiming Thanksgiving on the 4th avoids that situation.