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Thanksgiving, 1908

November 18, 2008 |  1:16 pm


Above, Thanksgiving, 1908

"Did the Pilgrim Fathers have salads at their Thanksgiving feasts? Nay, verily!"

How Did Thanksgiving Get to Be Turkey Day?

History: The All-American feast took its time becoming the holiday we all celebrate today.

Thursday November 15, 1990


1908_1120_harris Thanksgiving didn't come into the world fully formed. We don't even know when the first Thanksgiving Day took place, only that it was sometime between Sept. 21 and Nov. 9, 1621.

The Pilgrims certainly had no idea of founding an annual holiday, either. The first Thanksgiving was strictly a one-shot event. Similar ad hoc days of thanksgiving were proclaimed from time to time in Massachusetts over the next 50 years--usually by the churches, rather than by the civil authorities--but it was Connecticut that made Thanksgiving an annual event, starting around 1647.

The custom of having an annual Thanksgiving Day spread throughout New England in the 17th Century, but as yet it did not include any idea of commemorating the First Thanksgiving. If anything was commemorated, it was a later Thanksgiving when the crops had failed and the Massachusetts Bay Colony came very close to starvation.

In 1631, everybody was down to a daily ration of just five grains of corn when a day of fasting and prayer was proclaimed for Feb. 22. Miraculously, on that day a ship returned from England with food supplies, the colony was saved and the fast day turned into a feast. There is a very old New England custom, now mostly forgotten, of serving every diner five grains of corn before the meal in memory of the hardship and the deliverance of that year.

The holiday actually met a certain amount of resistance as it spread. Since the "pagan" holiday of Christmas was not celebrated in Massachusetts until the 19th Century, Thanksgiving was often thought of as essentially a Puritan substitute for Christmas.

Thanksgiving made no headway in the South, for instance, and probably it was only because the Dutch colonists had celebrated what they called Thankday that it was accepted in New York. When the British governor of Rhode Island proclaimed Thanksgiving in 1687--doubtless thinking he was doing his subjects a big favor--Puritan-hating religious dissidents celebrated the holiday so contemptuously he threw some of them in jail. Rhode Island didn't start celebrating Thanksgiving until 1776.

In 1776, of course, Thanksgiving was not a Puritan but a Patriot holiday. That year and every year throughout the Revolutionary War, the Continental Congress declared a national Thanksgiving to boost morale. George Washington also declared Thanksgivings as President in 1789 and 1795, as did the following Presidents occasionally until about 1815.

Still, the holiday did not catch on. That took two things: the migration of New Englanders throughout the Northern states, enthusiastically taking their holiday with them, and one very determined lady, Sarah Josepha Hale.

Sarah Hale was born in Maine in 1788 and had powerful childhood memories of Thanksgiving. In 1826 she published a novel containing a plea for a national Thanksgiving holiday. In 1846, as editor of the influential Godey's Lady's Book, a combination fashion and literary magazine, she began her campaign in earnest. From then on, she wrote at least two editorials a year on the subject and deluged public figures with correspondence about the need for Thanksgiving. She even included a chapter on the campaign for a national Thanksgiving in her book on etiquette.

The South dragged its heels for a while--when the governor of Virginia considered the idea in 1855, it was denounced as a relic of Puritan bigotry (probably a code word for Northern abolitionism), but the next year his successor just proclaimed the holiday without soliciting advice, and it was a success.

In 1859, Thanksgiving was celebrated in every state of the Union except Delaware, Missouri and recently admitted Oregon, and Sarah Hale expressed the hope that the holiday could unify the country against the gathering clouds of the Civil War.

That didn't happen, of course, but during that war she persuaded Abraham Lincoln to declare a national Thanksgiving Day, intended to be celebrated annually. He established the date we follow now, the fourth Thursday in November. After the Civil War, Thanksgiving was encouraged as a way of healing the wounds of the struggle.

The menu at the first Thanksgiving in 1621 was simply whatever the Pilgrims, with the help of the friendly Wampanoag Indians, could put together: venison, wildfowl (mostly turkeys and ducks), fish and cornmeal. Even today, the Thanksgiving table is supposed to groan with abundance, but in the 19th Century it really groaned. Sarah Hale--whose vision obviously influenced how we celebrate Thanksgiving--described one table loaded with chicken pies, goose, ducklings and three kinds of red meat as well as turkey, and another crowded with plum puddings, custards and pies of all sorts.

She was emphatic, however, that turkey held pride of place among the meats and pumpkin among the pies, and these are still the essential Thanksgiving dishes for most people. How did they get this status?

It's a little hard to say. As the largest bird available, turkey is certainly a prime candidate for a feast. In the course of the 19th Century, it became the absolute essence of what we call "Turkey Day," partly because it was a time of culinary nationalism when Americans boasted that they had the best ingredients in the world and therefore the best food; the native bird was obviously the right one for the native feast. In his 1878 book "A Tramp Abroad," Mark Twain describes getting homesick for American food in Europe and lists about 75 American specialties. Prominent among them are "Roast turkey, Thanksgiving style. Cranberries, celery."

Cranberry sauce was already strongly associated with turkey. As early as 1663 a visitor to New England had written, "The Indians and English use them (cranberries) much, boyling them with Sugar for Sauce with their meat, and it is a delicate Sauce." Nineteenth-century cookbooks throughout the country recommend serving turkey with cranberry sauce (sometimes cranberry jelly or, as in the original Fanny Farmer cookbook, cranberry punch), even in non- holiday contexts. It must have been the universal American taste, helped by the fact that cranberries keep well and could be shipped easily.

The necessity of pumpkin pie is a little harder to explain. In the 1650s, a visitor to New England noted that the colonists were eating apple, pear and quince pies like Englishmen, and had largely given up pumpkin pie. Maybe the homely pumpkin pie made a comeback in the late 18th Century when New England developed a taste for "plain fare," rather than fashionable European dishes. They kept their English plum puddings and apple and mince pies, but elevated the homespun pumpkin over them.

The New England menu was profoundly influential, but of course it had to be adapted to local circumstances. It was hard to start a meal with oysters in the Midwest. Certain new food habits might invade the menu, too. Olives and gelatin salads were gourmet novelties in late 19th-Century America. On the whole, though, our Thanksgiving dinners are simpler than our ancestors'. The effect has been to reinforce the special status of turkey with cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie.

At the same time every group in the country has tended to add its own traditional feast day specialties to the menu, perhaps gumbo crowding out New England's creamed onions and chocolate cake the non-pumpkin parts of the dessert. The process continues today; in many households, turkey is accompanied by pasta or enchiladas.

It has often been pointed out that the First Thanksgiving was not the first thanksgiving in this country. There had been thanksgiving feasts in Virginia and the short-lived Popham Colony in Maine, years before the Pilgrims came.

We celebrate what is basically a New England Thanksgiving because New England made the festival its own. Its people had not come here as Englishmen and agents of the king, but to found a new society. In 1896 Edward Everett Hale, author of "The Man Without a Country," wrote of the first Thanksgiving: "The Festival itself was a reminder that they had turned over a new leaf. It was a thick leaf, too, and nothing could be read which had been written on the other side."