Happy Thanksgiving

One day I became curious how Lincoln’s Presidential Proclamation to reunify America turned into a feast of turkey legs, mashed potatoes, and pie.

I mean it seems fairly certain at first glance that the American holiday today was a result of President Lincoln’s third day of Thanksgiving, October 3, 1863, when he brought to national attention the cause for a November holiday to give thanks for “general causes” rather than “special providences” such as wartime victories. He thus declared a general and national Thanksgiving that year to be held on the last Thursday in November. Lincoln proclaimed:

Needful diversions of wealth and of strength from the fields of peaceful industry to the national defense have not arrested the plow, the shuttle, or the ship; the ax has enlarged the borders of our settlements, and the mines, as well as the iron and coal as of our precious metals, have yielded even more abundantly than heretofore. Population has steadily increased notwithstanding the waste that has been made in the camp, the siege, and the battlefield, and the country, rejoicing in the consciousness of augmented strength and vigor, is
permitted to expect continuance of years with large increase of freedom.

The actual origins appear to have been based in the observance of the bounty of peaceful industry and labor in-spite of ravages from a brutal civil war. And it was this particular Thanksgiving that was the first in the unbroken series of the national holiday tradition celebrated today. Unfortunately I never see this little bit of history brought to light during the holiday season.

Where did Lincoln get the idea from? It seems that the Thanksgiving holiday is evolved from a very routine English Puritan religious observation, which was irregularly declared and celebrated “in response to God’s favorable Providence”. Over time these observations by early settlers turned into a single, annual, quasi-secular New England autumnal celebration, but this was still a very small minority of Americans and it is not clear what Lincoln’s relationship with them might have been.

It is sometimes claimed that the first actual recorded “national” Thanksgiving was a formal declaration in 1777 by the Continental Congress. This event, however, had very little popularity outside a few peculiar and religious sects and “Thanksgivings” subsequently were only declared occaisonally and infrequently until 1815 when they apparently disappeared altogether.

The holiday thus was seen mainly as a regional observance until 1863 when President Lincoln declared three Thanksgiving days, two of which to celebrate Union military victories; the first following Shiloh on April 13 and the second a national day of thanks for the Gettysburg victory on August 6. The third day is the one described in the proclamation above. Perhaps Lincoln’s own family ties had some relevance to Thanksgiving, or perhaps he encountered it among his constituents and decided to expand the practice. Either way, today’s national holiday celebration was clearly founded at the end of the Civil War and not by the pilgrims or the Founding Fathers, as is often incorrectly claimed.

In fact, presidential declarations of Thanksgiving made absolutely no mention of the Plymouth Pilgrims or a “First Thanksgiving” until Herbert Hoover’s proclamation of 1931. This revision was apparently due to a change from how Pilgrims (and Indians) were perceived. Depictions of the settlers in America before the 19th century showed violent confrontation with people they encountered. As late as the 1910s a typical Thanksgiving “Pilgrim-puritan” image is more likely to have suggested settlers were fleeing a shower of arrows and running to safety than sitting down for a friendly meal with the “natives”.

The more modern imagery of Pilgrims and Indians sharing a communal and harmonious meal most likely found its place as an icon of American history in the early 1900s. The U.S. was concerned at that time with large numbers of immigrants and the related issues of integration into American culture. A Thanksgiving image of dissimilar ethnic communities co-existing amid peace and plenty was considered an effective message to help avoid confrontations. It was out of this school of thought that Jennie Brownscombe’s “First Thanksgiving” was painted in 1914 for Life magazine. Pilgrims were cast in a role to provide an example of the close-knit, religiously inspired American community. This also gained popularity as an image of American values and virtuosity to help boost morale during the dark days of the First World War.

Support for the holiday then unravelled a bit when President Roosevelt tried in 1936, against opposition, to move the day forward by a week to extend the Christmas shopping season. By 1941, during his administration, Congress declared the fourth Thursday in November to be the legal Holiday known today as Thanksgiving. However, since there are five Thursdays in November (two out of every seven years) several states continued to celebrate on the fifth Thursday for at least the next 15 years. Any guesses which states refused to comply?

Finally, in 1956 the fourth Thursday in November became the national holiday that Americans recognize today, observed similarly by every state in the Union.

The relevance of turkey to the holiday celebration is even more unclear than the origins of the celebration. Perhaps it stems from an early description of “men out fowling” for ducks, geese, and turkey (e.g. as described in the Bradford document, “discovered” in 1854). Or perhaps it is due to sentiment expressed in Benjamin Franklin’s note that “The turkey is a much more respectable Bird and withal a true original Native of North America”. Franklin actually was so enamored of the bird that he was in favor of using the turkey as the national Bird, instead of the Bald Eagle. Thus, perhaps he is not the person to have suggested it as a centerpiece for the dinner-table.

And so, today, I have yet to meet an American who has any idea why Lincoln started the holiday, why they are asked to celebrate the image of Indians and Pilgrims, or even why they are eating a native bird.

2 thoughts on “Happy Thanksgiving”

  1. have you ever questioned the origin of christmas and easter. your average human doesn’t know or care for that matter.

  2. Good question. I have been curious, but as I tend not to celebrate them anymore (since grade-school, where they were mandatory excercises in prayer and decoration — hey, it was rural America) I have not had the urge to spend as much time researching the details. Maybe this will be the year? On the flip side, I am starting to wonder whether the origins really matter anyway. In other words, in 100 years time will Thanksgiving involve children looking for a fat man in a turkey suit who sails in a magical pilgrim ship and delivers presents to your pumpkin patch…?

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