Legends & Lore of Southern Illinois: Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving is the oldest and most distinctive festival of American origin. Begun at the end of the Pilgrims’ first year here, the practice was confined mostly to the New England states for the first two hundred years. After that long period as a somewhat local custom, the practice spread until it became nationwide.

Thanksgiving was first marked by the Puritans in Plymouth Colony, Massachusetts, in 1621. It had been a most difficult year, but their crops had done reasonably well, and the prospects for food during the approaching winter were much better. Health had improved and more comfortable houses had been built. All were grateful for these good fortunes. Governor Bradford accordingly set aside three days in early December for observance of a period of worship and prayer as well as for feasting, games, contests, and the manual of arms. Hunters were sent into the forest and along the seashore for game. They returned with turkey, waterfowl, eels, clams, fish, and mussels. Neighboring Indians were invited, or heard of the feast, and came bringing five “Deere” with them. There was not sufficient space to house the settlers and the eighty or more Indians. Hence, most of the festivities were held about great open fires. All went well, and the first Thanksgiving was successful. From time to time, but not regularly and not always as thanks for a bountiful harvest, other days were picked for Thanksgiving.

These first festivals were naturally All American affairs, except perhaps for the release by the Puritans of small amounts of “comfortably warm water” (Holland Gin) . The typical menu of the annual festival is still the same – turkey, waterfowl, cranberry sauce, sweet potatoes, pumpkin pie, nuts, oyster dressing, cornbread, and tobacco to smoke after the meal.

The earlier Thanksgiving observances did not have the great religious significance that later came to be associated with them. They took on much of the family reunion or “to grandfather’s house we go” atmosphere. In this way, they carried on much of the “home for Christmas” practices of England. Since Christmas had been legally banned in New England, some of the Christmas customs of England easily became attached to the New England Thanksgiving.

After many years, Thanksgiving became a fixed practice in New England. Some steps also had been taken toward making it a national observance. This is indicated by President Washington’s proclamation of 1789, which designated November 26 as a day for national thanksgiving. Perhaps Washington was disappointed in its somewhat boisterous observance. He did not issue a second proclamation until 1795, when he designated a day in March as Thanksgiving Day. John Adams issued two such proclamations during his term of office. Jefferson considered it a religious festival and issued none. Succeeding presidents took little note of it.

These conditions held until 1846, when Sarah Josephs Hale became “the lady editor” of Godey’s Lady’s Book. Mrs. Hale began to advocate a national observance. She wrote many editorials and letters to those of influence, urging the adoption of such a day. After seventeen years, Mrs. Hale’s efforts began to produce obvious results. President Lincoln read the editorial she wrote in 1863 and doubtless received a letter from her. His response was a proclamation – perhaps the best one ever written – on October 3 of that year, asking all people to observe the last Thursday of November as a day for thanks and prayer. Each president since that day has designated a November day as one to be observed.

Illinois settlers from Virginia, the Carolinas, Kentucky, and Tennessee brought Christmas and firecrackers to the state. They considered Thanksgiving as a Yankee innovation, however, and accordingly ignored it. It was left for those of New England origin to initiate the Thanksgiving Day practice in the state. The first recorded observance of the day in Illinois came as a result of a proclamation supposedly issued by Governor Joseph Duncan in October, 1838. This proclamation appears to have been the product of a joke or forgery, but it did result in some observances. The next proclamation by an Illinois governor was issued by Governor Thomas Carlin on November 12, 1842, setting aside the last Thursday in November. Since that time, observance of Thanksgiving Day has been a rather regular practice.

With only the exceptions made by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the last Thursday in November has been the day set apart. In 1939, he chose a date one week earlier. Many state governors ignored the new date and, following the old practice, set the last Thursday of the month as the proper one. After another unsuccessful effort had been made to move the date forward, national legislation was enacted in 1941 to fix the date permanently as the last Thursday in November. Thus, after 320 years,Thanksgiving was made a legal holiday with a fixed date.

[Editor’s Note: On October 6, 1941, both houses of the U.S. Congress passed a joint resolution fixing the traditional last-Thursday date for the holiday beginning in 1942. However, in December of that year the Senate passed an amendment to the resolution that split the difference by requiring that Thanksgiving be observed annually on the fourth Thursday of November, which was usually the last Thursday and sometimes (two years out of seven, on average) the next to last. The amendment also passed the House, and on December 26, 1941, President Roosevelt signed this bill, for the first time making the date of Thanksgiving a matter of federal law and fixing the day as the fourth Thursday of November.]

“Legends & Lore of Southern Illinois” – John W. Allen

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