On November 26, 1863, the United States celebrated its first official Thanksgiving. Aside from the small matter of the Civil War, the Union had a lot to be grateful for. Business was good. The nation’s boundaries and population were growing. Relations were peaceful with every foreign power except the Confederate States of America. And so on October 3, President Abraham Lincoln issued a proclamation, written by Secretary of State William H. Seward: “I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States... to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens.”
Across the Union, from the White House to the log cabins on the frontier, Americans ate turkey with gravy and stuffing—preferably oyster, back when it was still plentiful and cheap—and many, many pies (though Lincoln may have substituted his own favorite dessert, a vanilla almond cake). In New York City, there were parades of “fantasticals” who dressed up in costumes and beat on drums and played horns as they marched through the streets. There was even football: a soldier stationed in Indiana reported in a postprandial letter home that “the boys are taking a game now.” It was as though America had gotten Thanksgiving right on its very first try!
Thanksgiving has a reputation now as a placid holiday, a peaceful interlude before the noisy Christmas season when there is no pressure to buy the perfect gift or feign good cheer and belief in flying reindeer. (Cooking an edible turkey is another story, but there are always side dishes and, if all else fails, pizza delivery.) There has never been a great Thanksgiving song. Its accessories, particularly gourds, have become the subject of mockery. Even its origin story is kind of dull—a bunch of women in bonnets and men in ridiculous hats and buckled shoes once ate a meal with their Native American neighbors. But the truth is, Thanksgiving was not always a peaceful relic of the good old colonial days. It was actually dreamt up by a magazine editor. And sometimes it was even contentious.
By 1863, although the concept of a celebration on the last Thursday of November was new, Americans already had lots of practice giving thanks. November 26 was not even the first Thanksgiving that year: on August 6, Lincoln declared a day of celebration in honor of the Union’s victory at the Battle of Gettysburg. Earlier in the war, Confederate President Jefferson Davis had twice proclaimed his own Thanksgivings to celebrate each of the Battles of Bull Run. The first national Thanksgiving celebration had taken place back on December 18, 1777, when Henry Laurens, president of the Continental Congress, declared a need for the new nation to show its collective gratitude for the victory over the British at Saratoga.
The only thing that made Lincoln’s proclamation unique was that it established Thanksgiving as a holiday for the entire nation on a predetermined day. Previously, Thanksgiving celebrations had been entirely dependent on the wishes of presidents and governors who could declare a Thanksgiving whenever they felt a celebration was in order. Public holidays were in short supply in early America. There was only one, aside from the weekly Sabbath: the Fourth of July. Even Christmas was a workday in some parts of the country—before Charles Dickens turned it into a family holiday, it was such a raucous celebration that the Puritans felt it had to be sinful. So Americans were particularly grateful for any extra days off.
(Conversely, civic leaders could also declare fast days if they felt the people were in need of repentance, though the only American president ever to do so was John Adams, twice. He never used his executive power to declare a Thanksgiving.)
Thanksgiving as we know it originated in New England. Its earliest incarnations involved a special church service and lots of speeches; it usually took place on Thursday, possibly because that was market day when everyone would be in town anyway. Gradually, New England Thanksgiving expanded to fill the entire weekend, through Saturday night, with dances, hunting parties and lots and lots of food. Originally turkey was the bird of choice because, on the scale of luxury, it ranked above the goose—but below the unforgivably decadent swan and peacock. Later, everyone ate it because that was what people had “always” eaten, even though wild turkeys were virtually extinct by the time of the Revolution.
In those early days, no one mentioned the Thanksgiving story we learned about in elementary school. New Englanders celebrated Forefathers Day on December 22, but only to commemorate their ancestors’ fortitude in surviving that first miserable winter of 1620. The story of Squanto, the corn-planting, and the feast with the Wampanoag neighbors had been forgotten and would not be resurrected until the manuscript of William Bradford’s “Of Plymouth Plantation” was rediscovered in the 1850s. By then, Thanksgiving dinner had become firmly entrenched in American tradition, thanks to the efforts of New Englanders who had moved elsewhere. (They formed their own expat societies, wrote James Baker in Thanksgiving: The Biography of an American Holiday, “much to the annoyance of New Yorkers who found Yankee self-absorption irritating.”)
No New Englander was more devoted to the cause of Thanksgiving than Sarah Josepha Hale, a New Hampshire native. Widowed as a young woman, Hale decided that instead of remarrying, she would support herself and her family with her writing. Her first novel, Northwood, published in 1827, had an entire chapter devoted to the traditional Thanksgiving dinner with a loving description of the groaning board that held not just a roast turkey and stuffing, but also “a sirloin of beef flanked on either side by a leg of pork and a loin of mutton… a goose and a pair of ducklings… and that rich burgomaster of the provisions, called a chicken pie.” There were pickles and preserves and bread and butter and an assortment of cakes and puddings and pies, “yet the pumpkin pie occupied the most distinguished niche.”
(Not everyone’s Thanksgiving was like this, of course. Culinary historian Bruce Kraig, whose new book, A Rich and Fertile Land: A History of Food in America, points out that roast turkey was a luxury available only to those with access to a cast-iron stove. Even as late as 1863, many people didn’t have them. “They either cooked the turkey before an open fire in a roasting pan, which took a long time,” he says, “or they braised or boiled it over the fire.”)
In 1837, Hale became editor of Godey’s Lady’s Book, the pre-eminent women’s magazine of the 19th century, a sort of combination of Good Housekeeping, Gourmet, Architectural Digest, Vogue, and The New Yorker. She stayed at her post for more than 40 years and used her considerable power to advocate for some of her favorite causes, which included education for women, celebration of American writing, the preservation of historical monuments, and, especially, the establishment of a Thanksgiving holiday on the last Thursday of November. This, she argued, would bring Americans together: “For one day the strife of parties will be hushed, the cares of business will be put aside, and all hearts will join in common emotions of gratitude and good-will.”
She published a full range of Thanksgiving propaganda: poems and short stories glorifying the holiday meal (these fictional menus were always very similar to the meal in Northwood), recipes so readers could recreate them at home, and suggestions for table settings and decorations. And every fall her Editor’s Table column contained a plea for a national Thanksgiving celebration, along with a tally of the states and territories that had already accepted it. This was, in part, a gesture of self-congratulation: from the beginning of her editorship, Hale took it upon herself to write personal letters to every state and territorial governor and U.S. president, who might not be regular readers of Godey’s, urging them to adopt Thanksgiving.
The governors of Virginia were particularly resistant to Hale’s pleas, as Diana Karter Appelbaum recounts in Thanksgiving: An American Holiday, An American History. Many Southerners already disliked Thanksgiving because they’d heard that New England preachers took advantage of the special Thursday service to preach sermons on more secular subjects, such as the evils of slavery. They took this personally. The Episcopal and Presbyterian churches independently declared Thanksgiving a church holiday, but Governor Joseph Johnson refused to make it a civil holiday, citing Thomas Jefferson’s belief in the division of church and state. Although Johnson declared a day of Thanksgiving in 1855 to celebrate the end of a cholera epidemic, he pointedly called it for November 15 when the rest of the country would be celebrating on the 29th. When Hale appealed to his successor, Henry H. Wise, he responded: “The theatrical national claptrap of Thanksgiving has aided other causes in setting thousands of pulpits to preaching ‘Christian politics’ instead of humbly letting the carnal Kingdom alone and preaching singly Christ crucified.” In other words, “Lady, here’s what you can do with your goddamned abolitionist holiday.”
Even after they rejoined the Union, Southerners remained hostile to Thanksgiving. Congress didn’t vote to make it an official federal holiday until 1941, so observation until then was still technically a matter of choice. Oran Milo Roberts, governor of Texas from 1879 to 1883, refused to acknowledge it. “It’s a damned Yankee institution anyway,” he said. Alabama and Louisiana had days of Thanksgiving in 1875 and 1877 to celebrate the exclusion of African-Americans from their state governments. Georgia had its own post-Reconstruction Thanksgiving in 1877, a week earlier than the rest of the country. Wrote the Atlanta Herald, “Let praise be given to God that he delivered the South from her bondage.”
Despite this, Southerners were well steeped in Thanksgiving cuisine. They may not have had cranberries (fruit-shipping was an innovation for the 20th century, says Kraig), and they may have substituted sweet potato for pumpkin and cornbread for Indian pudding, but they had their turkeys, their stuffing, and most of all, their pies. Southern women, after all, were readers of Godey’s Lady’s Book, too, and Hale and her publisher, Louis Godey, had always taken great pains to disguise their own opposition to slavery so as not to alienate subscribers. The magazine itself folded in 1878, the year after Reconstruction ended, but the image of Thanksgiving that Hale had created and so carefully cultivated lingers still.
Maybe the strangest part of the entire Thanksgiving story is how all its strangeness and contentiousness has been erased in favor of bland images of Pilgrims and cornucopias and the ritual of going around the table forcing each guest to announce what he or she is most grateful for. That had not been Lincoln’s intention in the original Thanksgiving proclamation. He’d asked for humility and penitence from his fellow Americans and compassion for war widows and orphans and, most of all, “I firmly implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility and Union.” It’s something worth remembering as we come to the end of another angry year.