Thanksgiving Day, a day that we celebrate the survival of our first year in the New World, is an American institution- one of the few which we have originated and which have become really NATIONAL. It certainly was not a national holiday in its beginning, in fact it was not national for almost two decades! Looking back to the first thanksgiving at Plymouth Rock in 1621 it was filled with religious ceremonies, thanksgiving, and food. Now-a-days on the fourth Thursday of the month of November, Americans gather for a day of feasting, football and family. Good cheer and hospitality are some of its distinguishing characteristics now-a-days, but was that always the case?
Did you know that Thanksgiving was not uniformly celebrated until major efforts to nationalize it were undertaken late in the 19th Century? George Washington in 1789 made a proclamation that Thursday, November 26th should be set aside as a day to give thanks and celebrate, but it was not made into law. Over 70 years passed and only 14 of the states observed thanksgiving as a holiday. But in 1863, on the same day that President Washington made his proclamation, October 3rd, President Lincoln made his own. With hundreds of thousands of soldiers away from home during the civil war, and needing a way to unify the nation, Lincoln, in the middle of war, put on his bravest face and decreed that
“harmony has prevailed everywhere, except in military conflict!” He stressed abundance, unity, and invoked thoughts of past holidays and memories, which struck a chord in the war torn Union. Despite Lincoln’s proclamation in 1863 that made Thanksgiving a national holiday, few Americans celebrated the holidays like the middle-class Protestants in New England and the Mid-Atlantic states did. Southerners refused to recognize the “Yankee Holiday”, Catholics opposed it on religious grounds, and the poor couldn’t afford a turkey.
At the close of the 19th century, Thanksgiving had gone from humble beginnings to an elaborate commercial gala! Men in rural Pennsylvania and New York City masqueraded at parades and huge parties. Witnesses says that there were 150 people in horse drawn carriages, dressed in fancy costumes going from party to party. It was such a sight, people flocked to see them. At the dawn of the 20th century, things had become a little bit darker. Construction and mechanics had improved by leaps and bounds. Street cars, tenement buildings, and immigration had people leaving the busyness of the city. Thousands of people, all grouped together, throwing their garbage in the street did not make the best living conditions. Hordes of poor children dressed up in costumes, begged for money or treats, and pulled pranks on Thanksgiving. Their so-called “ragamuffin parade” or “Mummer parade” had its origins in the European traditions of Carnival or Mari Gras that had been transported and transplanted by immigrants. Progressive-era reformers, school superintendents, and the police disapproved of the children’s cultural practice of begging and blackmailing. Upstanding church men and charitable men, urged New Yorkers in 1911 to not allow this “malicious custom” due to its undermining of family bonds and its lack of American national identity. The cultural “authority” of these urban leaders led public school teachers and settlement house workers to require students to write festive poems, perform plays, and draw pictures of turkeys, pumpkins, and pilgrims. The goal of the school presentations and projects on American history and culture were to instill a national identity and civil religion in children. In turn, patriotic children were expected to instruct their immigrant parents in dominant American customs and values. This custom still holds out into our 21st century.
Today in many American households, the Thanksgiving celebration has lost much of its original religious significance; instead, it now centers on cooking, football, and sharing a bountiful meal with family and friends. Turkey, a Thanksgiving staple so universal it has become all but synonymous with the holiday, may or may not have been present at the 1st feast in 1621. However, nearly 90 percent of Americans eat the bird on Thanksgiving. Football, being a sport that we originated, seemed to fit well with Thanksgiving, although no one figured out to put the two together nationally until George A. Richards in 1934. Richards, the owner of the fledgling Detroit Lions, needing a way to draw attention to his team from the overshadowing Detroit Tigers, contacted friend and owner of the Chicago Bears to invite them to play at Detroit on Thanksgiving Day. The event sold out within two weeks. He also owned a small radio station and had a lot of industry ties to the big time NBC radio station in which he used to nationally broadcast his game on 94 different stations country wide. In 1966, Dallas owner Tex Schramm followed suit when he secured an annual holiday game for the Cowboys. The Lions and Cowboys have since become as much of Thanksgiving as pumpkin pie and stuffing.
So as we gather together on this Thanksgiving, let’s get back to the humble origins. Be grateful and find joy in the simple things. It is when we become grateful for things, people, and events, you may notice that joy comes naturally. Thanksgiving, after all, is a word of action.