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Column: In celebration of Thanksgiving

Published on November 23, 2017 12:01AM

A Puck cartoon cover imagines a Thanksgiving holiday dance of plenty.

Library of Congress

A Puck cartoon cover imagines a Thanksgiving holiday dance of plenty.

A cover from the once-popular Puck magazine celebrates Thanksgiving in 1905.

Library of Congress

A cover from the once-popular Puck magazine celebrates Thanksgiving in 1905.

A selection of American writings about Thanksgiving from the Library of Congress.

Thanksgiving transcends cultures

The American custom of Thanksgiving transcends cultures and stands as a truly American tradition. In the following excerpt, Herman Spector tells the story of a 1939 Jewish Thanksgiving in New York City. The story foreshadows the grim realities of World War II, yet to come:

We don’t exactly have seasons here, but holidays are important. Before “Simkas-Torah” — that’s the holiday of rejoicing in the giving of the Torah — they use ducks. During the Passover holidays the best of all poultry is used — all the luxury items; capons, turkeys, and the finest chickens. This past Thanksgiving — not a Jewish holiday, of course — but I believe more Jews bought turkeys than ever before. Why? In my opinion, it’s due to particular world relations at this time, to conditions of oppression abroad and the desire to give thanks for living in America. During Chanukah week they prepare fat for the Passover, so specially fattened geese are brought to the city then, like the ones you saw outside. With the devout housewife, not to be able to have a genzil (goose) for the holidays would be a tragedy of the first order.

A Thanksgiving sermon

In African American communities in the late 19th century, Thanksgiving was celebrated in church with special Thanksgiving sermons.

The Rev. Benjamin Arnett was a prominent AME cleric in the Ohio AME Church.

In his Centennial Thanksgiving sermon on Nov. 30, 1876, Arnett reflects on the triumphs and failures of American history and projects a promising course for America’s future:

Following the tracks of righteousness throughout the centuries and along the way of nations, we are prepared to recommend it to all and assert without a shadow of doubt, that ‘Righteousness exalted a nation’; but on the other hand following the foot-prints of sin amid the ruins of Empires and remains of cities, we will say that ‘sin is a reproach to any people.’ But we call on all American citizens to love their country, and look not on the sins of the past, but arming ourselves for the conflict of the future, girding ourselves in the habiliments of Righteousness, march forth with the courage of a Numidian lion and with the confidence of a Roman Gladiator, and meet the demands of the age, and satisfy the duties of the hour. Let us be encouraged in our work, for we have found the moccasin track of Righteousness all along the shore of the stream of life, constantly advancing holding humanity with a firm hand. We have seen it ‘through’ all the confusion of rising and falling States, of battle, siege and slaughter, of victory and defeat; through the varying fortunes and ultimate extinctions of Monarchies, Republics and Empires; through barbaric irruption and desolation, feudal isolation, spiritual supremacy, the heroic rush and conflict of the Cross and Crescent; amid the busy hum of industry, through the marts of trade and behind the gliding keels of commerce.

And in America, the battle-field of modern thought, we can trace the foot-prints of the one and the tracks of the other. So let us use all of our available forces, and especially our young men, and throw them into the conflict of the Right against the Wrong.

Then let the grand Centennial Thanksgiving song be heard and sung in every house of God; and in every home may thanksgiving sounds be heard, for our race has been emancipated, enfranchised and are now educating, and have the gospel preached to them!

On the prairie

Frontier life in the 19th century offered challenges to pioneers, but also provided opportunities to give thanks.

In the 1930s, George Strester remembers his father, a preacher who tried farming in Nebraska in 1873. The Strester family celebrated a memorable Thanksgiving when their livestock ate a crop of rotten onions:

Father said we’ll have to have something beside vegetables to eat, so he decided to butcher the cow. She had gone dry anyway (probably because of eating so many onions) and was nice and fat and would make prime beef and enough to last all winter.

We children all shed a few tears when Old Broch was killed, for she was a family pet, but we had to have something to eat. That was the day before Thanksgiving, and the next day mother planned a real Thanksgiving feast — a large roast of meat with potatoes and carrots laid around it. Something we had not had for years. But there was a peculiar odor that filled the house while it was cooking. Mother said she might have spilled something on the stove which in burning, caused the stench.

The table was set and the roast brought on and how delicious it looked, and father, after giving thanks for the prosperous year and the many blessings that we had enjoyed, carved the roast, placing a liberal helping of meat, carrots and spuds on each plate. Mother took a bite and looked at father; he took a taste and looked at us kids. I took a mouthful and my stomach heaved, and horrors of horrors, there was that familiar taste of rotten onions. So our dinner was entirely spoiled and all we had to eat was johnny cake straight with nothing to put on it or go with it. Still father did not say any cuss words and though sorely tried, was still able to say ‘Well, well, that surely is too bad.’

Well we took the remains of Old Broch and buried them out in the field, and my little sisters laid flowers on her grave. Father decided then and there to quit farming, and although this all happened over 60 years ago, to this day I just can’t say that I’m very crazy about sorghum or onions.

Civil War feast

From Civil War diaries we know what the troops ate generally and on special occasions. For holidays, organizations solicited donations of food including poultry, mince pies, sausages and fruit. One account notes that the Sanitary Commission put on a feed in the field that consisted of turkey, chicken and apples — but a day late. A soldier noted, “It isn’t the turkey, but the idea that we care for.”

In the University of Iowa’s collections of Civil War Diaries and Letters, Asa Bean, a surgeon in the Union Army, wrote describing his Thanksgiving dinner on Nov. 27, 1862:

“There has been a surprise party here to Day for the Benefit of Soldiers and Nurses they were furnished with a Thanksgiving Dinner roast Turkey; Chicken & Pigeon & Oysters Stewed. … I had a good dinner of Baked Chicken & Pudding Boiled potatoes, Turnip, Apple butter, cheese butter, Tea & Trimmings …we live well enough, but cannot Eat Much without being sick.”

— Ellen Terrell, Library of Congress

A close call

In 1938, Mrs. Hulda Esther Thorpe remembers the dangers that settlers faced on the prairie in the 1800s, and the many reasons settlers had for giving thanks:

One of the best Thanksgiving dinners we ever knew of was when a family of settlers had their nice wild turkey dinner taken by the Indians, who came in silently and just shoved the folks back and eat it up.

They did not harm the white people though and after they were gone the women made a big corn bread and with what few things the Indians left, they had a feast, the best as the daughter tells, that she ever eat. This was because they were so happy and thankful that the Indians spared them.

The worker’s Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving didn’t always mark a joyous respite from work. Here, in a Depression-era interview, a marble worker in Vermont tells the story of a Thanksgiving Day uprising at the Proctor marble quarry, staged during the early days of labor organizing:

The time we took over Proctor we showed them our strength, though. It was Thanksgiving, and mighty little Thanksgiving for some of us. Some of the men and women wanted to go out to Proctor while the Proctors were enjoying their big dinner, and show them how little their workers had to be thankful for. I tried to discourage them, but when I found they were determined to go, I went along, with a lot of my friends, to keep them from getting tough. So hundreds of us landed into Proctor. The sheriffs and deputies tried to stop us, and we got the bunch of them and locked them up and took the town over. Then we paraded all afternoon through the streets. The next day the company unloaded a gang of deputies into Proctor and from then on nobody could stand on the corner, or collect in even twos or threes, without being busted up.

Founders give thanks

Following the Revolutionary War, the Continental Congress recognized the need to give thanks for delivering the country from war and into independence. Congress issued a proclamation on October 11, 1782:

By the United States in Congress assembled.


IT being the indispensable duty of all Nations, not only to offer up their supplications to ALMIGHTY GOD, the giver of all good, for his gracious assistance in a time of distress, but also in a solemn and public manner to give him praise for his goodness in general, and especially for great and signal interpositions of his providence in their behalf: Therefore the United States in Congress assembled, taking into their consideration the many instances of divine goodness to these States, in the course of the important conflict in which they have been so long engaged; the present happy and promising state of public affairs; and the events of the war, in the course of the year now drawing to a close; particularly the harmony of the public Councils, which is so necessary to the success of the public cause; the perfect union and good understanding which has hitherto subsisted between them and their Allies, notwithstanding the artful and unwearied attempts of the common enemy to divide them; the success of the arms of the United States, and those of their Allies, and the acknowledgment of their independence by another European power, whose friendship and commerce must be of great and lasting advantage to these States: Do hereby recommend to the inhabitants of these States in general, to observe, and request the several States to interpose their authority in appointing and commanding the observation of THURSDAY the twenty-eight day of NOVEMBER next, as a day of solemn THANKSGIVING to GOD for all his mercies: and they do further recommend to all ranks, to testify to their gratitude to GOD for his goodness, by a cheerful obedience of his laws, and by promoting, each in his station, and by his influence, the practice of true and undefiled religion, which is the great foundation of public prosperity and national happiness.

Done in Congress, at Philadelphia, the eleventh day of October, in the year of our LORD one thousand seven hundred and eighty-two, and of our Sovereignty and Independence, the seventh.

JOHN HANSON, President.

Charles Thomson, Secretary.


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