Thanksgiving: History and Myth

By 1849, Sarah Josepha Buell Hale was an enormously successful teacher, writer, and editor in Boston. She wrote dramatic novels and magazine articles, and edited various important journals, especially The Ladies Magazine for almost all of her adult life. A pioneer in education for women, she also firmly believed in an ordered version of 19th Century New England family values, stressing traditional gender roles and emphasis on family life. 

In 1849, she started writing to Presidents, (first Zachary Taylor, then Millard Fillmore, then Franklin Pierce, then James Buchanan), asking that a day of “Thanksgiving” be established as a national holiday. As far as we know, her letters were ignored by those Presidents. But, in 1863, she wrote to President Abraham Lincoln, asking “to have the day of our annual Thanksgiving made a National and fixed Union Festival.” And she asked for the day to be fixed as the last Thursday of November.

Wait a minute, Professor, why 1863? Hasn’t Thanksgiving been a national holiday in late November since the Pilgrims in the 1600s? Well, yes and no. But embedded in that wishy-washy answer lie a lot of subtleties and complications that make the history of Thanksgiving more interesting than the standard story we hear. And, as is almost always the case when we talk about things on this show, the history of Thanksgiving is an example of something that illuminates far more than just the specific thing itself.

When and where was the first American Thanksgiving observance and feast? And who was there? The traditional story is that Pilgrims at Plymouth, Massachusetts were so grateful for their survival in the New World, and for a bountiful harvest that they organized a day of “thanksgiving” prayer and feasting in 1621. The Pilgrims were so thankful for their new lives that they invited local Native Americans to join the feast, and it was a joyous event of cross-cultural understanding and friendship.

But immediately, Buzzkillers, we’ve got problems. Not only does the Plymouth story rest on shaky evidentiary grounds, plenty of other places in colonial North America have claims to the first Thanksgiving observance. These include St. Augustine, Florida in 1565, San Elizario, Texas in 1598, and the Berkeley Plantation on the James River in Virginia in 1619.

“Days of Thanksgiving,” however, had been observed in Europe for centuries before this. Sometimes, usually when an important and unexpected good event happened, clerics would announce a day of thanksgiving, where extra masses were held and thanksgiving prayers were said, literally “giving thanks” for surviving a terrible storm, winning a war, or something of that magnitude. So the idea of “thanksgiving” observances is a very old one.

Since the story of the Pilgrims at Plymouth is the dominant one, and the one that Americans think they’ve based their traditions on, let’s go with that one.

No mere one day feast, the Pilgrims partied for three days after this particularly good harvest in 1621. It’s pretty clear, however, that this was a harvest celebration, not a thanksgiving observance. In other words, the Pilgrims weren’t thanking God for some special act, they were mainly chowing down on their abundance. (Harvest dinners, by the way, were a centuries-old tradition. Even in modern day England, some people hold a harvest dinner every year in the autumn.)

The accounts that survive tell us that roughly 50 Pilgrims and 90 Native Americans celebrated this 1621 harvest dinner. There’s no direct evidence that the Pilgrims invited the Native Americans to the dinner, but since Squanto and other natives had helped the Pilgrims enormously during their early years as a settlement, it’s likely that, when the Native Americans came to the dinner, they were welcome. Venison was the main dish (and the only one that is mentioned in the available sources). They may have had turkey, because that was not uncommon at the time, but it was not as frequently consumed as deer.

In 1623, the Pilgrims had another thanksgiving feast. There was a drought that year, which finally broke with a 14-day rain. The subsequent harvest was abundant and the Pilgrims had reason to have a harvest dinner and also make it a day of Thanksgiving because they were delivered from the drought. 

Days of thanksgiving were proclaimed (usually by Presidents, but sometimes by major clergymen) fairly regularly in the early decades of US history. These thanksgiving observations were usually for a specific event (such as the end of the War of 1812), and only sometimes for a general period of good fortune. Thanksgiving, therefore, was not a regularly scheduled holiday and was not necessarily observed every year. And the dates often varied from state to state.

Then came the Civil War. Abraham Lincoln usually gets the credit for creating a national day of Thanksgiving. This started with an 1863 proclamation that Sarah Hale had requested, prompted by Union successes in the war, especially the Battle of Gettysburg. But if that’s not a myth, it’s certainly an oversimplification.

The combination of Hale’s ideas and Lincoln’s desire (and need) to give the country an emotional lift during the Civil War, spurred Lincoln’s 1863 Thanksgiving Proclamation. It declared that the holiday was to be celebrated on the final Thursday of November each year.

Annual observances started in 1863 and have continued since then, but it was not an “official national holiday.” In fact official national holidays really didn’t exist back then in concept or in practice. It continued to be an unofficial holiday in late November, observed on different dates. President Ulysses S. Grant signed a “Holidays Act” in 1870 that made Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Years Day, and July 4 as federal holidays. But the act only applied to Washington DC itself. And, as you might imagine, southern states did not embrace the tradition, and would have certainly derided a Lincoln idea and then a Grant directive even long after the war was over.

Thanksgiving practices remained diverse for sixty-ish years. People ate duck, geese, chicken, and sometimes turkey. Sometimes games and sports were played, and sometimes parades were held.  

Fast forward to 1939, to another president who is given credit for modern Thanksgiving. In 1939, with the Depression still going on, President Roosevelt decreed that Thanksgiving was to be observed on the next-to-last Thursday of November each year. He did this to jump start the Christmas shopping season and boost holiday sales. (Thanksgiving, by this time, had marked the start of Christmas shopping for most people.) There was considerable opposition to this, however, from some Republicans who thought it was wrong to mess with the tradition that Lincoln (one of their party’s founders) had established. They called FDR’s move “Franksgiving” (after “Frank”lin D. Roosevelt) and “Democratic Thankgiving.” And they held “Republican Thanksgiving” on November 30th of that year (the last Thursday of the month).

Congress finally stepped in and passed a joint resolution saying that, starting in 1942, Thanksgiving would be observed on the fourth Thursday of November every year (no matter how many Thursdays were in any particular November in any particular year). That stuck.

So although the 1621 Pilgrim story is what we think about, it took a lot of other people and events bring about modern Thanksgiving: Sarah Josepha Buell Hale, the Civil War, Abe Lincoln, the Depression, FDR, and the Congress. And when you throw in the traditional football games, the Macy’s Day parade, and the Presidential Turkey Pardoning, it means there have been a lot of cooks creating Thanksgiving!

The thing I look forward to every Thanksgiving is sitting at the kids’ table. Fewer political fights and more food fights.

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