“What You Don’t Know About Thanksgiving”

What could a 61-year-old article possibly tell us about this well-known holiday?

Home to Thanksgiving, lithograth published by Currier and Ives, 1867

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That’s the presumptuous title of a Post article from 1948.

What could a 61-year-old article possibly tell us about this well-known holiday?

Surely we learned all the important points: Puritans, Native Americans, communal turkey dinner, a celebration of harmony and plenty.

The fact is, we’re not quite sure about several points. For example, we’re not certain that the first Thanksgiving in America was held in Plymouth colony. Before the famed Pilgrim dinner of 1621, there had been Thanksgiving feasts in the Virginia colony in 1607 and 1610. Now, residents of St. Augustine, Florida, point to a Thanksgiving celebration held in their city by Spanish settlers in 1565. And, of course, the first Thanksgiving lies far back in prehistory, for harvest festivals are as old as farming.

The Pilgrim feast did not launch a tradition. There is no record that they held another feast the following year. It might have been repeated in 1623 and 1676, but it was not, as Post author Roger Butterfield noted, a national event.

"What You Don’t Know About Thanksgiving" by Roger Butterfield
“What You Don’t Know About Thanksgiving” by Roger Butterfield

“For more than 200 years it was largely confined to New England and adjacent regions. During all those years it was regarded with suspicion in other parts of the country, and especially in the South, where it was looked upon as a probable medium of sectarian propaganda for the blue-nosed Puritan clergy.

“When the first national Thanksgiving Day was proposed in Congress in 1789, two Southern congressmen jumped up and objected—they did not think, they said, that the people had anything to be thankful for in their new government, and even if they did, the President and Congress had no right to tell them how and when to express their thankfulness…”

Separating Church and State

Nonetheless, President George Washington proclaimed the first national Thanksgiving Day in 1789. But other administrations seemed to avoid the issue with its political and religious complications.

“Thanksgiving as a national holiday almost died out, because of the stubborn opposition of another Virginia President, Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson took the position that Thanksgiving was a purely religious matter, and the President had no right to do or say anything about it, since the Constitution specifically prohibits any connection between church and state.”

Most presidents avoided the subject until Abraham Lincoln was inspired by Sarah Josepha Hale. Mrs. Hale was the editor of the most popular fashion magazine of the 1860s (and the author of the poem “Mary Had a Little Lamb”). For years she had promoted a single, nationwide celebration of family unity.

“Then,” she wrote, “though the members of the same family might be too far separated to meet around one festive board, they would have the gratification of knowing that all were enjoying the blessings of the day.

“Year after year she bombarded influential public figures—governors, mayors, college presidents, editors and judges—with personal letters about Thanksgiving. It was her custom to write to each new President on the subject as soon as he took office.”

She had a particularly convincing argument for President Lincoln:

“If Thanksgiving were a national holiday, she argued, it would constitute one more bond to hold the Union together … Would it not be of great advantage socially, nationally, and religiously to have the day of our American Thanksgiving positively settled?

“Putting aside the sectional feelings … would it not be more noble, more truly American, to become nationally in unity when we offer to God our tribute of joy and gratitude for the blessings of the year?

“Bear in mind that 1863 was the year of Gettysburg and Vicksburg and the New York City draft riots—a year of bloodshed and battle, of suffering in both North and South. Yet President Lincoln agreed with Mrs. Hale that the United States had much to be thankful for that year … Within a few weeks a proclamation issued from the White House which did indeed set Thursday, November twenty-sixth, ‘as a day of Thanksgiving and praise for our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the heavens.'”

The enduring tradition of his annual holiday starts from this proclamation by Lincoln, who was always ready to use religious arguments to promote national unity.

In 1940 President Franklin D. Roosevelt tried moving Thanksgiving backwards one week, believing he could help retailers by expanding the Christmas shopping season by seven days. When shoppers didn’t respond, Roosevelt moved Thanksgiving back to its traditional day.

The Abiding Religious Element

One final question: Is Thanksgiving a religious or secular holiday? We naturally assume that Pilgrims would lose no opportunity to thank the God who was the center of their society. It is surprising to learn, then, that Thanksgiving was not a religious occasion, or “holy day,” but the impromptu feast after a particularly good day of hunting (as you’ll see in the original article below.)

Church attendance on Thanksgiving this year will be far less than in the last century. Yet Thanksgiving remains a day of practical holiness: the day that families gather for a meal; children and parents try to reach across their differences; and Americans, it is hoped, extend help and encouragement to the many who need it—all to celebrate the power of unity and shared love. To this degree, Thanksgiving comes closest to a national day of faith and spiritual strength.

Read “What You Don’t Know About Thanksgiving”.

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  1. I was cleaning out my parents attic.I found a copy of the magazine dated 1940. Should I keep it ?????? Its in beautiful condition I never heard of the post until now. Days gone by.

  2. I’ll put my two cents in again: This is a nice story, and I’m no expert on the holiday, but I imagine that over the past century and a half Americans have celebrated the holiday in different ways regionally and chronologically and it is those differences–the differences that make America such an interesting place to read about, study, and visit–that could have been the basis of an “update” article on Butterfield. Perhaps that article will come next week, complete with 19thc and early 20thc prints from the Post, Harper’s, McClure’s, etc., and maybe MP3s attached to the emails to provide another sense impression. “We gather together … to ask the Lord’s blessing …” Can’t we have multimedia e-magazines?


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