As with Christmas, the Thanksgiving holiday as we know it today is a product of the Victorian era.
Although days of giving thanks to God have been celebrated since the Pilgrim fathers paused to offer thanks for their survival in the New World, an official national day of Thanksgiving was not established until the Civil War era. George Washington proclaimed the first national day of Thanksgiving in 1789 following America’s victory in the Revolutionary War. For the next 75 years, ‘Thanksgiving’ was irregularly celebrated with each state’s governor fixing the date the holiday was to occur. In various states, Thanksgiving was celebrated in September, October, November, December or even January. Our modern Thanksgiving celebration has its roots in the New England tradition of a home-centered holiday where the family gathers to give thanks for the blessings of the year and enjoy a bountiful dinner.
Sarah Josepha Hale, editor of Godey’s Lady’s Book magazine, began to champion the cause of a national day of Thanksgiving in the1820s. For more than 30 years, she wrote impassioned editorials and personal letters to every governor and 10 presidents. Some governors did make Thanksgiving Day proclamations, but no one agreed on a specific day.
Finally, Mrs. Hale realized what her holiday needed was not the support of politicians, but of women and their families. As editor of America’s more influential 19th-century woman’s periodical, Mrs. Hale was in a position to create in her readers’ imaginations a nostalgic, emotional longing for a holiday that never existed.
She wrote: “I have thus endeavored to lay before my readers one of the strongest wishes of my heart, convinced that the general estimate of feminine character throughout the United States will be far from finding it an objection that this idea of American Thanksgiving was suggested by a woman. The enjoyments are social, the feastings domestic; therefore this annual festival is really the exponent of family happiness and household piety, which women should always seek to cultivate in their hearts and in their homes.”
Mrs. Hale published pleas such as this as well as tantalizing Thanksgiving menus featuring dishes we are familiar with today: roast turkey with giblet gravy, creamed baby onions, cranberry sauce, etc., all elaborate fare by Pilgrim standards. She also published sentimental stories of families reunited during the holiday. In the 19th century, better railroad travel scattered family members to prairie homesteads, Midwestern towns, and eastern cities. Victorian women embraced the idea of a holiday that would draw the family together. Before long, Thanksgiving was regularly celebrated, but still there was no official proclamation on a national holiday.
In 1863, President Abraham Lincoln issued an official proclamation that a national day of Thanksgiving would be celebrated on the fourth Thursday of November. Lincoln’s decree came at a time when Civil War unrest was at its highest. The Thanksgiving holiday was recognized as a New England holiday the way we recognize Mardi Gras as a New Orleans holiday. Naturally, there was some southern criticism of Thanksgiving as a Yankee holiday, but gradually it became popular all over the country. Popular magazines continued to publish directions on how to stuff a turkey, make a pumpkin pie, prepare mincemeat, and use up leftovers, however, so that southerners could familiarize themselves with the “proper” Thanksgiving menu.
Our traditional Thanksgiving Day foods came from what was available on the 19th century New England farm. Turkey held the place of honor, but also included were chicken pies, roasted ducks and geese, a joint of mutton, pork or beef, and winter vegetables such as squash, turnips, potatoes and cabbage. Traditional New England sauces were also present at the table: cranberry sauce, apple butter, spiced crab apples, currant jelly and so on. This was the menu that was popularized by Mrs. Hale and other writers in popular magazines.
In the Victorian era, Thanksgiving completed its transition from a regional holiday to a national one. From coast to coast, Americans dined on turkey and pumpkin pie, made charitable gifts, and enjoyed family reunions.