Glenn Uminowocz - November 2007
Many Happy Thanksgivings
Executive Director, Historical Society of Talbot County
Shortly, Americans will sit themselves down to Thanksgiving dinner. Often labeled as the “most American of holidays,” Thanksgiving Day might better be described as a great national “invented tradition.” In fact, over a period of almost two centuries, the holiday has been reinvented several times. Along the way, Americans celebrated historical inaccuracies, indulged in Mardi Gras-like behavior, attempted to assimilate immigrants in school and at the dinner table, and demonstrated that stateways cannot become folkways.
The story begins with the Pilgrims, who held a feast for themselves and their Wampanoag neighbors in the fall of 1621 to celebrate their first harvest. Since the 19th century, this event has often been mistakenly referred to as the “First Thanksgiving.” At “Plimoth Plantation” in Massachusetts, living-history reenactors recreate the Pilgrim experience. On the museum’s website, staff member Carolyn Freeman Travers points out that the First Thanksgiving Day, as the Pilgrims understood it, actually occurred in 1623.
The founders of the Plymouth Colony observed three holy days—the weekly Sabbath, the Day of Humiliation and Fasting, and the Day of Thanksgiving and Praise. The later two were held for special circumstances, with a Day of Humiliation followed by a Day of Thanksgiving.
In 1623, for example, the colonists found themselves critically short of food. Drought affected the spring planting of corn and beans, and supply ships had not arrived as scheduled. These difficulties “moved not only every good man privately to enter into examination with his own estate between God and his conscience, and so to humiliation before him, but also more solemnly to humble ourselves together before the Lord by fasting and prayer. To that end a day was appointed by public authority.” On that appointed day, the religious services lasted nine hours as colonists sought to appease their God.
The very next morning “distilled such soft, sweet, and moderate showers of rain, continuing some fourteen days, and mixed with such seasonable weather, as it was hard to say whether our withered corn or drooping affections were most quickened or revived.” In addition, Captain Miles Standish brought news that the supply ships would soon arrive. In response to their change of fortune, authorities proclaimed a public day of thanksgiving. This First Thanksgiving Day likely occurred in July and consisted of a lengthy church service.
So, if modern Americans truly wish to mark their holiday like the Pilgrims, a Day of Humiliation and Fasting is the first step. Let there be no turkey, no stuffing, no cranberry sauce, and no sweet potatoes—just humble pie. After blessings are bestowed, thanksgiving can be expressed during a marathon religious service.
Needless to say, the most American of holidays did not evolve in this way. Prior to the mid-1800s, Thanksgiving had nothing to do with the 1621 harvest celebration. In 1841, historian Alexander Young first linked the Pilgrims and Thanksgiving when he discovered a colonist’s letter that included a reference to the 1621 event.
Historian Elizabeth Peck noted that, in the 1840s, Thanksgiving Day evolved into a “domestic occasion,” a gathering held in the home that paid homage to the nuclear family. This celebration of hearth and home contrasted sharply with a riotous alternative to marking the holiday. Author William Dean Howells observed that the 19th-century poor recognized Thanksgiving as a “sort of carnival,” a masculine day of rule breaking and mirth. Drunken men and boys, often masked, paraded from house to house demanding additional refreshment.
Sarah Josepha Hale was the person primarily responsible for domesticating Thanksgiving and making it a national holiday. As the editor of Godey’s Lady’s Book, Hale issued yearly editorials beginning in 1846 urging women to celebrate the “Great American Festival” of Thanksgiving. She relentlessly wrote letters to presidents and governors entreating them to make Thanksgiving a legal holiday. She hoped that the Great American Festival might help bind the nation together and avert the Civil War. Instead, after the Union victory at Gettysburg, Abraham Lincoln declared a national day of thanksgiving in November of 1863.
In her magazine, Hale portrayed Thanksgiving as a holiday of “family homecoming.” The ritual of returning home reconciled American individualism and family obligations. A man could be both self-made and an obedient son if he reunited with his family on Thanksgiving. The earlier raucous celebration of the holiday had been feminized under the guiding hand of the wife and mother.
In the 1880s, however, Ivy League Americans demonstrated that the spirit of exuberance could not be completely stripped from the holiday. In 1876, the Intercollegiate Football Association established the tradition of Thanksgiving Day football. Within two decades, 10,000 colleges and high schools staged games on the holiday.
In the 1920s, football moved into the home and established a compromise with the domestic occasion. The family could dine and then listen to a football game on the radio as a form of after-dinner entertainment.
Peck observed that it is a source of debate whether listening to a football game represented a reinvention of Thanksgiving or simply a new custom attached to the 19-century observance. She concluded, “Men, listening avidly to the game at home, probably thought it was a significant reinvention. They quickly came to regard listening to the game as traditional.”
Even before radio, gender segregation existed around the Thanksgiving meal, with men talking to men and women conversing with women before and after eating. The tradition of Thanksgiving Day football reinforced that segregation. Peck noted:
As women in the kitchen washed the dishes, and men listened to the game, one could recognize that women (willingly) gave up their leisure, and that men and children benefited from female sacrifice. Men and women also occupied separate spaces in the home on Thanksgiving, although it was easier for a woman to enter the living room where men were listening to the game than for a man to don an apron and help in the kitchen.
At the Thanksgiving meal itself, however, gender barriers fell away as everyone had a seat at the table. By the early 20th century, educators used the metaphor of a seat at the table as a means to “Americanize” immigrant school children and through them reach their parents. They cast the Pilgrims as among the nation’s first newcomers, who shared their experience with subsequent immigrants. Through the Mayflower Compact, textbooks claimed that the founders of the Plymouth Colony embraced democratic ideals. By learning about Thanksgiving, immigrant children carried messages about civic virtue and American nationalism home.
On their Thanksgiving tables, however, most immigrants sought a “culinary fusion” that asserted group identity while embracing elements of American culture. The turkey symbolized the dominant culture with side dishes and desserts representing immigrants’ contributions. Mothers added spices distinctive to their homeland to the stuffing. Italian families placed a plate of lasagna next to the turkey. A Chinese-American mother steamed a turkey, then stuffed it with a rice mixture normally used with chicken. Peck concluded, “Most groups were unconsciously making the statement that they were trying to assimilate by combining a few, selected elements of their culture with fealty to the national holiday and its cuisine.”
Whether immigrant or native-born, many of the Thanksgiving turkeys enjoyed by Americans on the East Coast came from the Eastern Shore. By the 1910s, poultry wholesalers in major cities were placing advertisements in local newspapers claiming to offer farmers the best price for their birds. The turkey long predated the chicken as the cornerstone of the commercial poultry industry on Delmarva.
Because they benefited economically from the commercialization of Thanksgiving, Eastern Shore people apparently offered few objections to the one great failed experiment to tinker with the holiday. Thanksgiving traditionally fell on the last Thursday in November. In 1939, there were five Thursdays in the month so the holiday fell on the 30th. Major retailers implored President Franklin D. Roosevelt to move the holiday back one week to extend the Christmas shopping season. Roosevelt complied.
Opinion polls revealed that over sixty percent of Americans opposed the move. In 1939, twenty-three states observed Thanksgiving on the 23rd and an equal number stuck with the 30th. The earlier date was quickly dubbed “Franksgiving.” One Midwestern shopkeeper hung a sign in his window reading, “Do your shopping now. Who knows, tomorrow may be Christmas.” One New England senator urged FDR to abolish winter. In 1942, Congress passed a bill setting Thanksgiving on the fourth Thursday in November, not the last. Roosevelt eagerly signed.
In 1939, an editorial writer for the Easton newspaper attempted to pass a Solomon-like judgment on the split dates for Thanksgiving. On November 24th, he wrote, “The formally designated Thanksgiving Day was yesterday, but we must not lose sight of the fact that the time for offering thanks is every day or hour in response to every good thought or worthy deed.” In short, at this time of year, remember to offer the hope that friends and family enjoy truly happy Thanksgivings.