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Saturday, November 21, 2009

Thanksgiving Yesterday and Today

Parades. Giant Balloons. Football Games. Black Friday. Doorbuster Sales. While families still gather for mouth-watering Thanksgiving feasts, many modern Thanksgiving traditions would amaze those from previous generations. One can only wonder what those who celebrated the first national Thanksgiving celebration in the United States would have thought of the evolution of Thanksgiving into a prelude to holiday shopping.

While there is some disagreement as to when and where the first Thanksgiving on American soil took place, the first national Thanksgiving observance was proclaimed by Abraham Lincoln in 1863. Since then, Thanksgiving has been observed throughout the nation each November. Through the Franklin Roosevelt administration, each president who succeeded Lincoln proclaimed a day of Thanksgiving, usually the last Thursday in November, until December 26, 1941, when Franklin Roosevelt signed a bill making the fourth Thursday of November the day for the official national Thanksgiving holiday into law.

When Lincoln proclaimed a national Thanksgiving observance in 1863, the country was embroiled in the most bitter, deadly conflict ever to occur on American soil. Horrific battles such as the Battle of Gettysburg created widows, orphans, and mourners on both sides of the conflict. For most Americans in the North, the Thanksgiving observance in 1863 was a bittersweet affair. Sarah Josepha Hale, the editor of Godey’s Lady’s Book, had lobbied governors and Presidents for forty years to have Thanksgiving declared a national holiday. President Lincoln, recognizing the weariness of the nation and the darkening of the nation’s mood, proclaimed a national day of Thanksgiving to give thanks for what was good in America despite “the wounds of the nation”.

The military did not officially observe the holiday that year, though many units held special dinners and celebrations. In 1864, the Union League Club of New York took steps to ensure Union soldiers and sailors enjoyed a Thanksgiving Dinner. Launching a public campaign, the group raised thousands of dollars and collected tons of food to be used in preparing these dinners. The effort to provide military men with a hearty Thanksgiving meals was a success, with many soldiers and sailors appreciating the effort to care about the troops in the field.

On the Union home front, Thanksgiving dinners were very similar to the feast we enjoy today. Roast turkey with stuffing, green beans, cranberry sauce, and pumpkin pie were commonly found on the holiday table, along with fried oysters, soups, sweet potato pudding, and other rich, delicious dishes. Thanksgiving was a time for families to gather and reminisce, cherish memories of those we’ve lost and miss those who aren’t able to be at the table. In that respect, Thanksgiving today hasn’t changed one little bit.


Anna Kathryn Lanier said...

Great information. I have to admit, I wasn't up on all the history on the 'modern' Thanksgiving. We only hear about the Pilgrims in school, not Lincoln's contribution to the celebration of the day. Thanks for sharing.

Susan Macatee said...

Great information! It's true that we always think of Thanksgiving as orgininating with the pilgrims, but it was actually Lincoln and the Civil War that brought the celebration we have today into existence.

Jeanmarie Hamilton said...

Enjoyed the Thanksgiving blog. I learned some things I didn't know. I imagine there were regional and local dishes on the table back then, maybe more so than now.

Kathleen Bittner Roth said...

Really interesting. Did not know that Abe Lincoln contribution to Thanksgiving. Cool. I live overseas and Thanksgiving is not celebrated here, but we do our own and give thanks. Turkeys are not sold whole here but in leg/thighs to be served up in a stew-like dish and breasts which are thin fileted and grilled (found on menus in most restaurants). So I can go to only one store (like a Sam's Club) here and get a whole turkey. Last year we had some locals in for Thanksgiving dinner and they loved the roast turkey-especially the stuffing. It was so unique to them.

Victoria Gray said...

I enjoyed researching this topic since it brought "home" the significance of the holiday besides hordes of people lining up outside big box stores for "bargains"...I think it's sad just how much this holiday, like so many others, has been commercialized.

librarypat said...

Thank you for an interesting post on the establishment of Thanksgiving day in this country,
Hope everyone had a wonderful Thanksgiving.

Nancy said...

Ok, Victoria, you know I have to speak up. Here in Virginia just up from Jamestown the colony proclaimed "A feast of thanksgiving" for surviving the brutal Native American uprisings. This was held a full year before the Pilgrims ever set sail. Unfortunately, the late great unpleasantness messed with "our version" of history and the Pilgrims prevailed. No matter we all get to celebrate. However I doubt I'd be invited back again to Plymouth plantation after pointing that out a few years ago. :o) But being a Virginia it was my duty. And before that El Paso where the Spanish held theirs.

Nancy O