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.