History of a holiday
How Pilgrims, a determined editor and Abraham Lincoln invented Thanksgiving Day
In the beginning there were Pilgrims and Indians, more or less like we learned in school: after a successful harvest in November 1621, the governor of Plymouth Colony organized a thanksgiving feast and invited members of the Wampanoag Indian tribe to the celebration. But this wasn’t the beginning of Thanksgiving as we know it. It would take sweeping social change, one very determined woman and President Abraham Lincoln to make Thanksgiving the national holiday we all know and love.
After the Pilgrims’ Thanksgiving in 1621, fall harvest celebrations continued to be an annual tradition in New England. The custom of having a feast after a successful harvest was an ancient one in England, and one that colonists in the northeast perpetuated. After American independence, these Yankee settlers brought the tradition of Thanksgiving with them when they moved west and settled new territory.
By 1840, Thanksgiving was widely celebrated in New England and the Midwest. It was the custom for the governor of each state to make a proclamation setting aside a day for feasting and Thanksgiving. Although this day usually occurred on a Thursday in November, there was no fixed date set for Thanksgiving. It could and did happen any time from September to January. In Illinois, the first statewide Thanksgiving was proclaimed by Governor Thomas Ford and held on Thursday, Dec. 29, 1842.
Just as today, the holiday involved gathering with family for an elaborate feast that featured pumpkin pies and turkey (as well as chicken, geese, partridge and duck). Unlike today, the citizens of the 19th century took the “thanksgiving” aspect of the holiday quite literally, and a good portion of Thanksgiving Day was spent in church giving thanks to God.
This was in stark contrast to America’s only two national holidays at the time, Independence Day and Washington’s Birthday. Both of these holidays were civic, not religious, occasions, characterized by boozy street festivals that often got rowdy and out of hand. Yet the growing American middle class, who idealized home and family, longed for a holiday that was religious and family-focused.
Enter Sarah Josepha Hale. In 1837, the widowed mother of five became the editor of Godey’s Lady’s Book and thus one of the most influential arbiters of American culture. As a native of New England, Hale had grown up with the tradition of keeping Thanksgiving. She envisioned setting aside the last Thursday in November as a national Thanksgiving holiday, “…when the noise and tumult of worldliness may be exchanged for the laughter of happy children, the glad greetings of family reunion, and the humble gratitude of the Christian heart.”
To this end, she used her bully pulpit at Godey’s to write a series of annual editorials, stories, songs, recipes and poems promoting Thanksgiving each autumn. In 1846, she began a 17-year-long letter-writing campaign to the president of the United States as well as the governors of every U.S. state and territory asking them to proclaim the last Thursday in November as Thanksgiving Day.
While several states readily adopted the custom of keeping Thanksgiving, many more, particularly in the South, had deep reservations. In 1853, Gov. Joseph Johnson of Virginia declined to declare the day of Thanksgiving on the grounds that it was a religious holiday, citing separation of church and state. In 1856 his successor, Henry A. Wise, wrote to Hale that he would not be declaring a day of Thanksgiving because “this theatrical national claptrap of Thanksgiving has aided other causes in setting thousands of pulpits to preaching ‘Christian politics’ instead of humbling letting the carnal Kingdom alone and preaching singly Christ crucified.”
By “other causes,” Wise meant the cause of abolitionism. Despite Hale’s belief that a national Thanksgiving holiday would help to unify America’s growing sectional divisions, many in the South identified Thanksgiving as a “Yankee” or “abolitionist” holiday and wanted nothing to do with it. Governor Price of Missouri skipped Thanksgiving in 1855, leading the St. Louis News to wonder, “Does he think Thanksgiving Day a Yankee institution, full of fanaticism, and, therefore, dangerous for the Southern people to meddle with?”
This association of Thanksgiving with the North begs the question of why, of the five presidents Hale petitioned, it was Abraham Lincoln who finally declared Thanksgiving a national holiday in 1863. Was it truly a day of praise and healing in the midst of the bitter Civil War? Or was it Lincoln’s subtle way of assigning cultural superiority to the North?
At any rate, once Lincoln established the practice of declaring a national day of Thanksgiving, his successors kept up the tradition. The last Thursday of November was the customary date. In 1939, however, November had five Thursdays, and President Franklin Roosevelt moved Thanksgiving to the fourth Thursday to lengthen the Christmas shopping season. In 1941, Congress passed a law that permanently established Thanksgiving Day as a national holiday occurring on the fourth Thursday of November.
Erika Holst is Curator of Collections at the Springfield Art Association.