Giving Thanks

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Giving Thanks




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       n the 1830s, Alexander Young, a Unitarian minister in Boston, began
       compiling primary source documents about the Pilgrims. In his research,
       he ran across a book titled Mourt’s Relation, which had been published in
England in 1622. This work contains a letter from one of the first settlers of Plym-
outh Plantation, Edward Winslow, in which he wrote that in the autumn of 1621,
William Bradford, the governor of the just-established colony, had declared a
holiday after the crops were harvested. The English colonists had just made a
treaty with the local Indians, ninety of whom unexpectedly showed up to solidify
it. According to Winslow, the Indians and colonists feasted for three days in cel-
ebration of the treaty. In 1841, Alexander Young republished Winslow’s letter in
his compilation of early records, Chronicles of the Pilgrim Fathers of the Colony of
Plymouth. Young added a footnote to Winslow’s description of the 1621 event,
claiming that this “was the first thanksgiving, the harvest festival of New England.
On this occasion they no doubt feasted on the wild turkey as well as venison.”1
    While the Pilgrims did have many days of thanksgiving, they did not view this
feast with the Indians as one of them. It was an insignificant event and the Pil-
grims took no notice of it in subsequent years. The whole idea that the Pilgrims
were the first to celebrate Thanksgiving in America was, in fact, preposterous.
Many days of thanksgiving had been celebrated previously by Europeans in the
new land. Young’s creation of the “first Thanksgiving” myth might have died a
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     Giving Thanks

     quiet death in that obscure footnote had not other New England writers picked
     up the idea, embellished it, and presented it as ironclad truth.2 Twenty-two years
     after the publication of Young’s book, Thanksgiving was proclaimed a national
     holiday, and the Thanksgiving dinner became enshrined as America’s most cher-
     ished culinary extravaganza. It remains so today.


     Giving Thanks History
     Giving thanks for God’s blessings is part of the religious traditions brought to the
     New World by Europeans. Spanish explorers and colonists had been celebrat-
     ing days of thanksgiving in what is today the United States for decades before
     the Pilgrims landed in Massachusetts. The English colonists at Jamestown had
     celebrated days of thanksgiving more than a decade before the Pilgrims landed.
     Even the Pilgrims themselves had had days of thanksgiving well before the pro-
     verbial first Thanksgiving noted by Young. Winslow did not assign the name to
     the event of the fall of 1621, and William Bradford, the chronicler of early life at
     Plymouth Plantation, made no mention of a thanksgiving at that time. During
     the following decades, the Puritans celebrated many days of thanksgiving, but
     they had nothing to do with food. Local ministers set thanksgivings at any time
     of the year after a particularly important event—a providential rainfall, a good
     harvest, or perhaps a military victory. Although thanksgiving dinners had been
     common in England, the Puritans held days of thanksgiving as solemn holy days.
     In Puritan New England, a thanksgiving day would have been spent in church,
     and little evidence has survived indicating that special food was served; indeed,
     it is unlikely that feasts would have been prepared or served on holy days.
          A few references to Colonial thanksgiving dinners have survived, but they are
     from the southern colonies, not New England. Shortly after the American vic-
     tory at Saratoga in 1777, however, the Continental Congress declared a day of
     thanksgiving. When the War for American Independence ended, in 1784, another
     thanksgiving was proclaimed. President George Washington declared national
     days of thanksgiving in 1789 and 1795. None of the proclamations establishing
     these days made any mention of a thanksgiving dinner. By this time, though,
     thanksgiving dinners were common in many places in America. A participant in
     a 1784 thanksgiving meal in Norwich, Connecticut, remarked, “What a sight of
     pigs and geese and turkeys and fowls and sheep must be slaughtered to gratify
     the voraciousness of a single day.”3 William Bentley, pastor of East Church, in
     Salem, Massachusetts, wrote in 1806 that “a Thanksgiving is not complete with-
     out a turkey. It is rare to find any other dishes but such as turkies & fowls afford
     before the pastry on such days & puddings are much less used than formerly.”4



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An observer in 1817 reported that Thanksgiving dinner consisted of “roasted tur-
key, a smoking plum-pudding and pumpkin-pies.”5
    Edward Everett Hale, a Unitarian minister and author, remembered the
Thanksgiving dinners that his family celebrated in Massachusetts during the
early nineteenth century. They commenced with chicken pie and roast turkey,
then proceeded to several different types of pies, tarts, and puddings, and ended
with dried fruit.6 A New Hampshire Thanksgiving dinner of the same era began
with a ham and a large roast turkey, followed by chicken, duck, celery, plum pud-
ding, pies, and fruit, finally ending with coffee and tea.7 An 1831 dinner in Geneva,
New York, featured turkey, beef, duck, ham, sausage, potatoes, yams, succotash,
pickles, nuts, raisins, pears, peaches, pie, tarts, creams, custards, jellies, floating
islands, sweetbreads, wines, rum, brandy, eggnog and punch.8 In 1835, an observer
in Maine reported that everyone looked forward to Thanksgiving “with bright
anticipations of feast and frolic. For a week preceding, all is preparation for its
approach. Our markets are thronged with the various provisions indispensable
to a Thanksgiving dinner; and the ‘bustling housewife’ is busily engaged in pre-
paring them for her expected guests.”9 The writer Harriet Beecher Stowe remem-
bered her childhood Thanksgivings, in Litchfield, Connecticut, replete with tur-
key, chicken, chicken pies, plum puddings, and sweet pies.10


Nationalizing Giving Thanks
Many influences helped nationalize Thanksgiving. New England soil was not the
best for farming, and during the early nineteenth century, many New Englanders
moved to other parts of the United States in search of better farmland. With the
completion of the Erie Canal, New Englanders migrated to New York’s central
valley and later to the Midwest. Transplanted New Englanders kept the Thanks-
giving dinner traditions alive in their new homes and urged their newly adopted
communities to celebrate the feast as well. New York was the first state outside
New England to declare Thanksgiving a holiday, and midwestern states soon fol-
lowed. Thanksgiving became widely celebrated throughout America, especially
in the North, but by the mid-nineteenth century, it was still a holiday celebrated
only at the local or state levels.
    The person who made Thanksgiving a national holiday was Sarah Josepha Hale,
who was born in 1788 in Newport, New Hampshire. After running a school for five
years, she married David Hale, a lawyer, who died in 1822. To support her five chil-
dren, she turned to writing. In 1823, she published her first book of poetry, The Genius
of Oblivion, and, four years later, she published her first novel, Northwood; or, a Tale
of New England, which featured an entire chapter describing Thanksgiving dinner:



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     there was roasted turkey, beef sirloin, a leg of pork, mutton, a goose, two ducks,
     chicken pie, stuffing, “innumerable” bowls of gravy, plates of vegetables, plates of
     pickles, preserves, butter, bread, and “a huge plum pudding, custards and pies of
     every name and description,” but “pumpkin pie occupied the most distinguished
     niche.” There were also several kinds of cakes, and a variety of sweetmeats and
     fruits. Beverages included currant wine, cider, and ginger beer.11 Northwood estab-
     lished the model for what became the “traditional Yankee Thanksgiving dinner.”
         Northwood catapulted Hale into literary stardom. She became the editor of
     American Ladies’ Magazine, a small monthly published in Boston, and after its
     purchase by Louis A. Godey, in 1836, Hale became the editor of Godey’s Lady’s
     Book. Under Hale’s management, the magazine prospered: subscriptions went
     from 10,000 annually in 1837 to 150,000 by 1860, a phenomenal achievement.12
         At the time, only two national holidays were celebrated in the United States:
     Washington’s Birthday (February 22) and Independence Day (July 4). A few
     years after the story of the “first Thanksgiving” appeared in Young’s book, Hale
     launched a campaign to make Thanksgiving a national holiday. Beginning in
     1846, she wrote regularly to members of Congress, prominent individuals, and
     the governors of every state and territory, requesting each to proclaim the last
     Thursday in November as Thanksgiving Day. In an era before television, radio,
     the Internet, or even the typewriter, this campaign was a daunting task. Hale also
     wrote editorials in Godey’s Lady’s Book promoting Thanksgiving. Each year, she
     listed the states that had agreed to celebrate the holiday. Her efforts did receive
     support and publicity from various quarters. Magazines and newspapers printed
     Thanksgiving stories, songs, and poems.13 Even the transcendentalists chipped
     in: Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote a Thanksgiving poem and Margaret Fuller wrote
     about Thanksgiving in newspapers and books.14
         By 1859, Hale was close to success, with thirty states and three territories cel-
     ebrating Thanksgiving on the third Thursday of November. After the Civil War
     broke out and she was unable to communicate with many southern states, Hale
     devised a different strategy. She wrote, in 1863, privately to William Seward,
     Lincoln’s secretary of state and a former senator from New York, requesting
     that President Lincoln declare Thanksgiving a national holiday.15 She also wrote
     directly to President Lincoln, and she may have met with him. Her efforts finally
     paid off a few months after the North’s military victories at Gettysburg and Vicks-
     burg: in the summer of 1863, Lincoln declared the last Thursday in November a
     national day of Thanksgiving.16
         Thanksgiving church services continued to be held in the nineteenth century,
     but the religious content of the day declined as the century progressed. In 1834, a
     writer remarked that Thanksgiving should be spent in a “house of prayer with our



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hearts tuned to the sacred service, and the flame of devotion burning brightly in our
bosoms,” and that Americans “should kneel around the holy altar, and send up from
thence the incense of thanksgiving and praise.” But she also noted that it was proper
that the country’s citizens “close the day in an innocent enjoyment of the blessings
with which we are surrounded, mingling therewith a solemn sense of that goodness
which permits us to partake of them.”17 By the 1870s, this dual view had changed.
Scribner’s Magazine proclaimed, in 1871, that Americans had “almost lost sight of”
the religious character of the day. In cities, the author reported, no one considered
attending religious services on Thanksgiving a duty, and in the country, women and
men attended services, but their attention was really focused on “what has grown to
be considered the real event, the raison d’etre of the day, namely, the dinner.”18
    By the nineteenth century’s end, the Thanksgiving meal had become an
elaborate and abundant feast—and an opportunity for the host and hostess to
display their generosity to their families and guests. At the center of the feast, tur-
key reigned supreme. While many other main dishes had been tried, it was tur-
key that thrived, mainly because it was less expensive than the alternatives. The
turkey also became symbolic, thanks to the myth of the first Thanksgiving. The
traditional side dishes—stuffing, gravy, sweet potatoes, succotash, corn bread,
cranberries, and pies—were inexpensive as well, so that Thanksgiving dinner
was affordable to all but the poorest Americans.
    And even the poorest Americans might have a dinner on Thanksgiving as
charitable groups sponsored dinners for the homeless and indigent. One such
event, held in the notorious Five Points district of Manhattan, was captured in
a lithograph in Harper’s Weekly. The picture showed hundreds of poor children
standing at tables eating Thanksgiving dinner. The dinner was sponsored by
the Ladies’ Home Mission of the Methodist Episcopal Church; it turned into an
annual event and was held throughout much of the nineteenth century.19 There
is another Harper’s Weekly illustration, of a middle class family sharing the left-
overs from its dinner with a poor immigrant waif; the lithograph is titled The First
Thanksgiving Dinner.20 St. Barnabas House, in New York, served 1,400 pounds of
turkey to 1,000 indigent guests. In 1895, Mrs. Frederick W. Vanderbilt sponsored a
“turkey dinner” with all the fixings for 400 poor boys of Newport, Rhode Island.21
Similar events have been held in almost every city in America ever since.


Giving Thanks to the Pilgrims
By 1870, school textbooks had begun telling the tale of the Pilgrim fathers and
their first Thanksgiving dinner.22 A decade later, the Pilgrim-centered story had
blossomed in accounts published in magazines, newspapers, and books. Jane G.



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     Austin, a popular American novelist of the late nineteenth century, wrote a series
     of books on the Pilgrims. In her novel Standish of Standish: A Story of the Pilgrims,
     she included a full chapter on the first Thanksgiving. In this fictional account, the
     Pilgrims—less than a year after their arrival in America–—celebrated Thanksgiv-
     ing at a long table, with bowls brimming with hasty pudding topped with butter
     and treacle, “clam chowder with sea biscuit swimming in a savory broth . . . great
     pieces of cold boiled beef with mustard, flanked by dishes of turnips.” Another
     table, claimed Austin, held a large pewter bowl full of “plum-porridge with bits of
     toasted cracker floating upon it,” and turkeys were stuffed with beechnuts. Then
     there were “oysters scalloped in their shells, venison pasties, and the savory stew
     compounded of all that flies the air.” Game was caught by hunters, and the Pil-
     grims and American Indians ate “roasts of various kinds, and thin cakes of bread
     or manchets, and bowls of salad” and “great baskets of grapes, white and purple,
     and of native plum, so delicious when fully ripe in its three colors of black, white,
     and red.” The food was downed with “flagons of ale” and “root beer, well flavored
     with sassafras.”23
         The only foods on Austin’s list that the Pilgrims might actually have consumed
     in the fall of 1621 would have been turkey, venison, corn (maize), and ale. Austin
     had exercised complete artistic license in describing the meal, which she was
     certainly entitled to do in a work of fiction. As unbelievable as that mythical first
     Thanksgiving dinner may sound to us today, at the time it was widely accepted
     as accurate. A review in Publisher’s Weekly, for instance, proclaimed Austin’s first
     Thanksgiving scene as “faithfully” portrayed.24 The story was then adopted by
     many schoolteachers and incorporated into the history curriculum. Plays and
     pageants were devised celebrating Thanksgiving, with classes reenacting the
     first Thanksgiving, complete with children dressed up as Indians and Pilgrims;
     some schools offered Thanksgiving dinners based on Austin’s fictional version
     of life in Plymouth in 1621.25 Standish of Standish was reprinted several times, and
     Austin’s version of the Pilgrims and that first Thanksgiving became embedded in
     the country’s American history curriculum.26 In 1919, Austin’s novel was adapted
     as a play for children, and many schools and communities performed it when
     the three-hundredth anniversary of the first Thanksgiving rolled around in 1921.27
     This curriculum spawned, in turn, a large children’s literature celebrating the Pil-
     grims and the first Thanksgiving.28
         Thanksgiving dinner and the Pilgrims were enshrined on the covers and
     inside pages of some of America’s most popular magazines. Illustrator Thomas
     Nast’s cartoon, appearing in Harper’s Weekly in 1869, shows Uncle Sam carving a
     turkey at a bountifully appointed dinner table, surrounded by men, women, and
     children of different religions and ethnicities.29 J. C. Leyendecker’s cover for the




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November 1907 Saturday Evening Post pictures a Pilgrim stalking a tom turkey.30
American painters also contributed to the myth: Jennie Augusta Brownscombe’s
painting The First Thanksgiving, completed in 1914, appeared in many school
textbooks, and Jean Louis Gerome Ferris’s First Thanksgiving was frequently
reprinted in magazines.31 Other popular works of art and literature have fostered
the myth ever since.32


Giving No Thanks
Not everyone was happy with the Thanksgiving dinner. In 1835, William Alcott,
a physician and vegetarian, stated that he was opposed to the feast on moral
grounds as well as for medical reasons. He called Thanksgiving a carnival,
“loaded with luxuries not only on the day of the general thanksgiving, but for
several days afterward.” He was particularly concerned because New England-
ers were also beginning to celebrate Christmas, and he claimed that the two
feasts had already merged into one long period of overindulgence that caused
serious health problems.33 John Harvey Kellogg, the vegetarian director of the
Battle Creek Sanitarium, took up the cause against the Thanksgiving dinner. He
believed that the large meal was a tragedy in the making that could cripple diges-
tive “organs completely and produce a fatal uremia.”34
   Few Americans paid any attention to Alcott or Kellogg at the time, but dur-
ing the past thirty years, vegetarians have shifted their focus from condemning
the Thanksgiving dinner to condemnation of its centerpiece—the turkey. Veg-
etarians celebrated the holiday; they just eliminated the bird from the feast. Ani-
mal rights organizations, such as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals
(PETA), gain visibility for their cause around Thanksgiving. For PETA members,
“turkey day” is a time to convince Americans to give up eating meat in general
and turkey in particular. PETA has sponsored petitions and published leaflets
encouraging a turkeyless Thanksgiving under the slogan Give turkeys something
to be thankful for!


Giving Thanks Effects
The rapid adoption of the Thanksgiving myth had less to do with historical fact and
more to do with the arrival of hundreds of thousands of immigrants to the United
States in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In the face of this great
wave of immigrants from so many lands, the public education system’s major task
was to Americanize them by creating a common understanding of the nation’s his-
tory, in particular, an easily understood history of America. The problem was that



                                                                                         
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     Jamestown, which had the greatest claim to be the founding American colony, was
     where slavery had begun, and after the bloody Civil War—fought, in large part, to
     free the slaves—that wasn’t a message anyone wanted in school textbooks. On the
     other hand, the absurd Pilgrim fathers, with their floppy hats and mythical blun-
     derbusses, and the newly invented first Thanksgiving dinner, at which colonists
     and Indians feasted together, were ideal elements for the story of America’s begin-
     ning. The tale gave legitimacy to the colonists’ settlement of the land and sug-
     gested friendly relations with the Native Americans.35 Few educators and textbook
     publishers could resist the temptation to use these attractive images.
         The immigrants, who had celebrated no such holiday as Thanksgiving in their
     native lands, readily joined in the feast because it demonstrated their loyalty to
     their adopted country and their belief in American abundance. As they adapted
     the celebration to their own tastes, the immigrants modified the menu by includ-
     ing their own traditional foods alongside the standard Thanksgiving dishes.
     The turkey retained its place of honor—after all, it was native to America and
     a symbol of the nation’s bounty.36 But the newcomers complemented the tur-
     key with their own festive dishes—pasta, fried rice, sauerkraut, refried beans, or
     pierogis—honoring their own history as well as that of their new home.
         Thanksgiving remains one of America’s most important holidays. Come
     November, schoolchildren still reenact the first Thanksgiving, and turkey, gravy,
     and cranberry sauce predictably appear on school cafeteria menus. Newspapers,
     magazines, and television programs tell of the Pilgrims and their feast with the
     Indians. Retailers make relentless commercial use of Thanksgiving as the start
     of the Christmas shopping season, and parades and other public gatherings are
     held in cities and towns across America. And the family Thanksgiving dinner
     holds its place as America’s preeminent national culinary event.


     Postscript
     Alexander Young was a prolific writer who published dozens of biographies
     and religious tracts during his lifetime. His Chronicles of the Pilgrim Fathers went
     through many editions, and it remains in print today. In 1849, he became the sec-
     retary of Harvard’s board of overseers and corresponding secretary of the Mas-
     sachusetts Historical Society. He died in 1854.37
         Sarah Josepha Hale’s literary career flourished. In all, she published nearly
     fifty books, and she continued to serve as editor of Godey’s Lady’s Book until 1877.
     She died in 1879. For her efforts to make Thanksgiving a national holiday, Hale is
     remembered as the Mother of Thanksgiving.38




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