Thursday, November 25, 2010
History of Thanksgiving
James W. Baker, the Senior Historian at Plimoth Plantation, debunks several of the myths of the first Thanksgiving in Massachusetts. The settlers’ first Thanksgiving meal consisted of mainly meat such as venison and wild fowl. Most vegetables were not available in autumn other than cooked, mashed pumpkin or corn. No desserts were prepared as there was little sugar. The food was piled directly on the table or ground as soon as it was cooked. The settlers ate with spoons, knives, and their fingers. They did not typically wear black, preferring earth colors and buckles were not available.
New Englanders continued the tradition of the Plymouth Thanksgiving but most Pennsylvanians preferred their Harvest Home festival. Pennsylvania Governor Simon Snyder, in 1817, was the first to recognize Thanksgiving as an official holiday on the third Thursday in November. Governor William Findlay continued the practice the following year, setting Thursday, November 19, as Thanksgiving Day. Governor John W. Geary of Pennsylvania, in 1868, issued a Thanksgiving proclamation urging citizens to “Let us thank Him with Christian humility for health and prosperity" and “our paths through life may be directed by the example and instructions of the Redeemer.” A week after Geary’s proclamation seven Philadelphia rabbis signed a petition stating, “An elected official, chosen by a large constituency, as the guardian of inalienable rights, ought not to have evinced a spirit of exclusiveness.” Geary did not respond to the petition.
Sarah Josepha Hale used her position as editor of the Godley’s Lady’s Book and Magazine to campaign for a national Thanksgiving Day holiday. Beginning in 1837, she wrote letters to five presidents and every state governor advocating the holiday as a device to keep the country unified. Southern states rejected the idea considering it a Yankee tradition. Hale did finally gain President Abraham Lincoln’s ear. Lincoln declared it a national holiday in 1863, after the Union’s victory in the battle of Gettysburg. He dedicated the last Thursday of each November as a "day of thanksgiving and praise to our beneficent Father." The holiday emphasized the religious belief that the nation was blessed by God and given a special purpose in the world.
The first Thanksgiving Day parade occurred in 1920 in Philadelphia. Ellis Gimbel of Gimbels Department Stores sent fifty costumed employees to parade in the street to lure customers to his toy department. The Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade began in 1924 when employees of the R. H. Macy and Company store on Herald Square, organized a parade to give thanks for their new adopted country. Many of the employees were immigrants and first-generation Americans.
Public school teachers picked up on the idea of using the Thanksgiving Day holiday to teach lessons to the children of immigrants. This was an effort to Americanize immigrants. Pupils learned the story of the first Thanksgiving and acted in Thanksgiving pageants. The children then encouraged their parents to celebrate the holiday as Americans did.
Football soon became essential entertainment on Thanksgiving. The Intercollegiate Football Association scheduled its first championship game on Thanksgiving Day in 1876. Thousands of high schools and colleges had scheduled games on the day by 1900. Listening to the Thanksgiving Day football game on the radio became an important part of celebrating the day, from the 1920s to 1950s. The first national radio broadcast of a NFL Thanksgiving Day game featured the Detroit Lions against the Chicago Bears in 1934. The first televised a broadcast of a NFL Thanksgiving game was viewed in 1956.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt changed the date for Thanksgiving to the fourth Thursday of November in 1939, approved by Congress in 1941, to accommodate retailers who wanted a longer Christmas shopping season. This Thanksgiving, whether you are with company or alone, it is a good time to consider all the things to be grateful for.