The Thanksgiving traditions we are familiar with in the United States have been celebrated by Americans since the mid-19th century. Before then, Thanksgiving was a different kind of holiday centered throughout Colonial New England; each community focused on celebrating its blessings and the families who lived there.
On October 3, 1789, George Washington put forth a proclamation declaring that Thanksgiving Day would be a national holiday in remembrance of the developing nation’s struggle for independence. Discord among the colonies prevented its adoption; each one preferred to maintain its own day of Thanksgiving and methods of celebration.
The roots of our Thanksgiving holiday come from the Puritan tradition of “festive rejoicing” on a special day each year during the fall. In the beginning, it often followed a day of fasting. Historian Alexander Young brought to light Pilgrim Edward Winslow’s account of a three-day harvest celebration in 1621, held to give thanks publicly for God’s many blessings in the new land. Sheer faith enabled the Pilgrims to give thanks after a terrible year in which nearly half their number died from sickness.
Winslow wrote of the event in correspondence he sent back to England. It was attended by the Pilgrims and over 90 friendly Wampanoag Indians, an Algonkian-speaking people of the Eastern Woodlands Culture. Samoset, Squanto, and Massasoit had taught the Pilgrims how to plant, hunt and fish and dozens of other useful survival skills. That feast is believed to be the forerunner of subsequent Thanksgiving celebrations in New England.
The table may have been sparse in comparison to today’s celebration. Edward Winslow’s main mention of food was of four men who hunted seasonal wild fowl for the feast. The Wampanoag brought along venison and probably wild turkey, plentiful during this period. They probably brought along beans, squash and ample maize or Indian corn, a staple food for the Wampanoag.
The corn was dried then soaked in water and ash (lye solution) to make hominy. The softened kernels would puff up and split. They were rinsed and cooked. Dried corn was ground into meal for breads and mush-like puddings. Sobaheg was a Wampanoag stew made from turkey, fish or game with vegetables like squash, beans and nuts. Pease pottage or pea soup was a popular dish among the Pilgrims.
Native pumpkins and squash were probably eaten, boiled in a pot or baked in the fire. There was no pumpkin pie, as we know it today. Fish such as cod and bass were plentiful as well as fresh, ripe berries for the picking.
One hundred fifty years later, around 1770, published accounts of Thanksgiving meals mention roast turkey, mince pies, Indian pudding, vegetables, cider and preserved fruits. Maple sugar and honey were used for sweetening.
The meal became more bountiful as time passed. Around 1860, writer Sarah Josepha Hale wrote extensively about pumpkin and apple pies, cranberry tarts, stuffed turkeys, roasted beef, loin of mutton, vegetables, breads, sweetmeats, ginger-beer and large cakes.
Sarah Josepha Hale, the editor of Godey’s Ladies’ Book, had begun a long crusade around 1827 to turn Thanksgiving into a national holiday. She wrote extensively, using several of the women’s magazines she edited as a platform. “There is a deep moral influence in these periodical seasons of rejoicing, in which whole communities participate,” she wrote in 1835.
The notion of celebrating and feasting with the Indians became more popular after the mid-19th century, when the Indian wars were winding down. The historical account of the first Thanksgiving became especially important when the new immigrant population began pouring in.
The Pilgrims were considered good role models for the newly arrived immigrants; their story of special value and an ideal way to inspire the newcomers with America’s early history.
Sarah petitioned presidents and governors and in 1847 recommended that, “as long as the Union endures,” the last Thursday of November should be set aside as a day of giving thanks for the entire country.
After years of fervent letter-writing and campaigning, by 1852, she brought 29 states together in favor of a national day of Thanksgiving. In 1859, she felt the holiday could bring the entire nation together and help avert the impending Civil war. That year, thirty states, including South Carolina, and two territories celebrated Thanksgiving Day on the last Thursday of November.
Sarah persevered, especially dedicated through the early war years. With the aid of the Union League club of New York City and Christian charities, many Northern troops were able to celebrate Thanksgiving Day as early as 1861. Some meals were bountiful; others sparse with only fish, hardtack and cider. In letters to home, many troops mentioned the annual meal and the games played afterwards with “foot balls.”
Finally, on October 3, 1863, bolstered by the Union victory at Gettysburg and Sarah’s fervent editorials, President Lincoln issued a proclamation that the last Thursday in November would become a day of national thanks-giving. Unfortunately, the Confederate states were not able to uphold the proclamation until the war’s end.
Sarah Josepha Hale was instrumental in making Thanksgiving Day a national holiday. It was celebrated on the last day of November until 1939 when Franklin Roosevelt changed the day to the third Thursday of November because of pressures from retailers who wanted additional shopping days between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Under attack from angry Americans, Roosevelt changed holiday back to its original date.
In the early 20th century, the Daughters of the American Revolution were instrumental in sharing the Pilgrim’s history with the new immigrants. According to Ford News, Ford Motor company included historical information about the Pilgrims during Americanization classes for new employees. Throughout America, there were re-enactments, skits, plays and stories, especially for children.
We think of the Pilgrims’ struggles when we celebrate Thanksgiving, a holiday of gratitude and peace born in the midst of a terrible war. The blessings of Thanksgiving are meant for everyone. This year, when we come together on Thanksgiving Day, we should be especially mindful of the countless storm victims in our midst and of our troops throughout the world who are in harms way. Pray for their safe return while giving thanks for the many blessing of our great land.
A variety of Thanksgiving recipes will be posted regularly on my blog throughout this week. ]]>