The day Thanksgiving Went South

The title of this article uses the word fight, a seemingly contradictory word for a holiday that represents fellowship and promotes giving thanks. But, as it were, a one Mrs. Sarah Josepha Hale rallied relentlessly to get the public on board and exult Thanksgiving Day to a national holiday via her editorial position in the Godey’s Lady’s Book. It wasn’t until the Civil War that, after many attempts, Thanksgiving became a national holiday in the North and the South.

Few of the Southern States had then adopted the custom, thus Hale attempted to bring together all countrymen in celebration.
“Everything that contributes to bind us in one vast empire together, to quicken the sympathy that makes us feel from the icy North to the sunny South that we are one family, each a member of a great and free Nation, not merely the unit of a remote locality, is worthy of being cherished.” -Sarah Joshepha Hale, Godey’s Lady’s Book, 1860

The first recorded Thanksgiving observance was held on June 29, 1671 at Charlestown, Massachusetts by proclamation of the town’s governing council. The problem for Hale was that only some states since then, mostly those in New England, celebrated the day in various forms and on various days. Since the 1700s individual colonies observed days of thanksgiving during the year. The 18th century brought periodically designated days of thanksgiving honoring a military victory, an adoption of a state constitution, or an exceptionally bountiful crop. One such Thanksgiving Day celebration was held in December of 1777 by the colonies nationwide, commemorating the surrender of British General Burgoyne at Saratoga.

Yet, Hale wanted to bring Thanksgiving, not only to the South but to the entire nation and continued her charge even throughout the War Between the States. Prior to her campaign, there was only a proclamation signed by George Washington appeared in the Massachusetts Centinel of October 14, 1789, setting aside Thursday, November 26 as “A Day of Publick Thanksgiving and Prayer.” Still, that wasn’t enough. Especially since she was hoping to bring her idealist New Hampshire Protestantism view to a predominantly Baptist and Presbyterian South in the hopes to join the two halves of one country.

Hale’s hard work was slow to catch on in the South since Thanksgiving was seen as a “Yankee abolitionist holiday”. However, in 1847 for Governors Albert G. Brown of Mississippi and Thomas Drew of Arkansas to declare their states’ first-ever Thanksgiving Days. Similarly, Texas Governor P. Hansborough Bell took the plunge in 1850. Soon thereafter, most Southern governors had joined the Thanksgiving ranks including Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, and North and South Carolina in 1858.

In her letter to President Abraham Lincoln, Hale explained the “increasing interest” to have Thanksgiving on the same day each year. The following letter went on to change history:

You may have observed that for some years past, there has been an increasing interest felt in our land to have the Thanksgiving held on the same day in all the states; it now needs national recognition and authoritative fixation, only, to become permanently, an American custom and institution.

Would it not be fitting and patriotic … to appeal to the Governors of all the States, inviting and commending these to unite in issuing proclamations for the last Thursday in November as the Day of Thanksgiving for the people of each State? Thus the great Union Festival of America would be established.
-Sarah Josepha Hale, 1863

For 17 years the authoress of “Mary Had a Little Lamb” submitted formal statements on behalf of the holiday, stating her argument time and again to at least four Presidents–Zachary Taylor, Millard Filmore, Franklin Pierce, James Buchanan before her appeal was finally addressed by Abraham Lincoln with a letter dated September 23, 1863. And on October 3, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln issued a proclamation that declared “the last Thursday of November next as a Day of Thanksgiving and Praise.” His decree recognizing the historic tradition prompted many interesting events thereafter:

The Hartford Courant from 1865 contains a story of a pardoned turkey that was meant to be part of that year’s Thanksgiving feast who ended up becoming a fixture on the White House lawn instead. Lincoln’s son, Tad, insisted that, when a live turkey was sent to the White House for Thanksgiving he protested by proclaiming “that the turkey had as good a right to live as any body, and the pampered gobbler remained in the President’s grounds.”

A poem entitled “The Soldiers’ Thanksgiving”, was also sent to Lincoln from Mrs. Lydia Baxter.

Of course, since the days of Hale and Lincoln, the Thursdays on which Thanksgiving was celebrated has changed. First, the Raleigh-born President Andrew Johnson moved the day to the first Thursday in December in 1865. Then, in 1869, President Ulysses S. Grant chose the third Thursday for Thanksgiving Day. In all other years, until 1939, Thanksgiving was celebrated as Lincoln had designated, the last Thursday in November. Then, in 1939, responding to pressure from the National Retail Dry Goods Association to extend the Christmas shopping season, President Franklin D. Roosevelt moved the holiday back a week, to the next-to-last Thursday of the month.

In 1890, the Charlotte News observed that, “With each succeeding year, the observance of this day has grown more general until now it is second, as a holiday, only to Christmas….The Thanksgiving dinner, around which the happy household gathers with perhaps a few particular friends as guests, has become typical of the day.”

This article first appeared in Issue 8 of RHR the Magazine

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