Thursday, November 27, 2014

A Day of Giving Thanks

Has the fourth Thursday of November become lost amidst the the rabid rush with the commercialization of the holiday season?  Black Friday, as the day after Thanksgiving Day is now encroaching on Thanksgiving Day.  Some merchants being fined if they choose to close on the Day of Giving Thanks, otherwise known as Thanksgiving, rather that to remain open.  Employees are also upset over the move to open on Thanksgiving as well Black Friday.   

So, maybe a look back at the historical significant of the day would be helpful.  Truly, it only became a federal holiday on October 3, 1863 with Abraham Lincoln’s proclamation asking Americans to observe this, the last Thursday in November, as a day of thanksgiving. 

President Lincoln acted on the establishment of a specific day for the celebration of thanksgiving following receipt of a letter from Sarah J. Hale, Editress of the “Lady’s Book”.  Ms. Hale had been working for 15 years towards recognition of a permanent day for the entire country to hold their annual day of thanksgiving.

And so, President Lincoln wrote in Proclamation No. 9, October 3, 1863 “I do, therefore, invite my fellow-citizens in every part of the United States, and also those at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next as a Day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the heavens.”  (Library of Congress)

How was this day of thanks and praise celebrated and how did it gain acceptance throughout the country before, and after, the President’s action?

In 18th century and the early part of the 19th century it appears that the only universal civic holidays celebrated by everyone except the Native Americans and the enslaved Black African Americans were Independence Day (July 4) and Washington’s birthday (February 22).  Although Presidents Washington, Adams and Madison declared days of Thanksgiving during their presidencies with the day differing from year to year and it was not declared annually.  (Jefferson did not declare Thanksgiving Day.)

Some people felt discomfort in changing the holiday to a day of national observation because the primary way of celebration was — eating.  They felt “a day supposed to promote praise and thanksgiving to the Almighty to be spent on gluttony was bothersome”.  Imagine what those people would think of including an entire day of football and shopping thrown in with the food and drink.

While we are on the topic of food, what do you think would be on the tables?  Fowl such as ducks, geese, pigeons, possibly swans and wild turkeys (not domesticated ones like today); venison; fish and seafood like oysters and lobsters if they lived near the ocean; corn for porridge and grits (think polenta) and wild berries.  Depending upon the family’s wealth there might also be Madeira, a fortified wine, or beer, or homemade rum made from molasses.  Of course, as the country grew and prospered, the menu start to include dishes from the various homelands of the immigrants.  It also changed by included new vegetables and fruits.  While some of the dishes still appear, new ones come and some disappear.  

In  the days preceding 1939 following the President’s annually declaration of the Thanksgiving Proclamation, most governors followed suit proclaiming the same day to be celebrated in their state.  But in 1939, November had five Thursdays and FDR declared the fourth Thursday as Thanksgiving rather than the fifth or last Thursday.  Not all accepted this change to Lincoln’s original proclamation so some states celebrated both days as Thanksgiving, some (23) went with FDR and some (22) did not.  To end the confusion both houses of the US Congress passed a joint resolution on October 6, 1941 that beginning in 1942 Thanksgiving would be the last Thursday of November But the Senate passed an amendment in December 1941 amending the resolution requiring that Thanksgiving be observed annually on the fourth Thursday of November (which is the last Thursday in some years).  The amendment was passed and on December 26, 1941 FDR signed the bill.

Tradition plays a big part in celebrations and Thanksgiving is no exception.  We no longer celebrate for three days but the foods still tend to include some, if not all, of the foods associated with that first celebration observed by the Pilgrims.  Various Fall vegetables especially squash and pumpkin,  berries (cranberries), potatoes both sweet and white, and turkey, although today’s turkeys are much larger and fatter than the wild turkeys of the 17th century.  The nearest today’s turkeys come to the original ones would still be a wild turkey, or perhaps a heritage turkey, still fatter, but closer in a gamy taste.
Photo of Pheasants "an hour of shooting on the hills around the Powell house" in Arletta (HHM Collections)

Tradition enters the picture again with the practice of giving thanks.  Thanksgiving was originally founded as a religious observation for the community to thank God for a common purpose.  Today that tradition varies from attendance at a religious services, saying a prayer before the meal or having each diner express a specific reason why or what they are thankful for during the year.  

The early celebration changed in 1920 when the NFL (National Football League) was formed.  It began the tradition of football games on Thanksgiving.  For colleges and universities, Thanksgiving games represent the last game of their season; here in Washington it is the Apple Cup when eastern Washington (WSU) meets western Washington (UW).  Other sports also are involved in games on Thanksgiving.  There is a annual Turkey Trot held in many communities throughout the country.  Gig Harbor’ s Turkey Trot starts at 8 AM on November 27, 2014, and includes 5K, 10K runs and a 5K walk.  This year, all proceeds are going to FISH food bank, a local organization called Food Backpacks 4 Kids, the Bischoff food bank, and local high school scholarships.

However you celebrate, or don’t, celebrate the fourth Thursday of November, remember to give thanks.

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