The 19th century Thanksgiving is much like the Christmas celebrated in the 19th century: it is very misunderstood.
While most know that Thanksgiving was officially declared a national holiday during the later half of the 19th century they do not know how much Thanksgiving was celebrated before it became an official “day” on the national calendar.
Thanksgiving long before the 19th century in America was a time-honor family tradition. In fact, by the time the 19th century rolled around the “New England style” Thanksgiving was celebrated from border to border, in every state and territory.
Thanksgiving as well was also widely reported on in the media, too.
Take, for example, this simple little article that shows “Thanksgiving by the Numbers”, a common theme in media reports in our time about Thanksgiving. This article dates from 1801:
The most stunning number in that article does not come from accounting for turkeys but rather for the number of “pies and tarts” consumed by each household – about 20 to a family!
That article is dated some 70 years before the official Congressional declaration of Thanksgiving as a holiday. In other words, people were celebrating Thanksgiving by tradition in America and they were doing it in a big way.
Like our Thanksgivings today, folks back then wanted to know how it all began. The media at the time did all they could to explain what they could find of its history and to detail how traditional elements of Thanksgiving came to be.
Said the Boston Recorder in 1843: “A letter contained in the Rev. Mr. Young’s ‘Chronicles of the Pilgrims” dated December 11, 1621, says “Our harvest being gotten in our governor sent four men on fowling, so that we might, after a special manner, rejoice together, after we had gather the fruit of our labors. They four in one day killed as much fowl, as, with a little help beside, served the company almost a week.” In note on this passage Mr. Young says, “This was the first Thanksgiving, the harvest festival of New England. On this occasion they no doubt feasted on the wild turkey as well as venison.”
Thanksgiving, you see, was by then more than 200 years old in America. A great deal was known about it because it had been a consistent tradition for generations. People quite frankly didn’t need an act of Congress to celebrate Thanksgiving.
Ironically, it was a yearly proclamation from a governing authority that produced the Thanksgiving tradition. That started in 1621 with Governor William Bradford in Plymouth colony.
But even then Governor Bradford was a late comer to the Thanksgiving table.
He was merely echoing a long-standing British tradition of calling the public to Thanksgiving celebration whenever there was a public cause to do so. Thanksgiving continued in this vein for a long time, as this little notice of Thanksgiving in 1735 points out:
The first Thanksgivings were randomly called whenever a war was won, a victory secured or good news achieved within the public sphere.
By the time the 19th century rolled around Thanksgiving had become less random. The yearly fall harvest – a big annual milestone in any agricultural society – became reason enough for governing authorities to call people to prayer and celebration.
And celebrate they did.
The Boston Traveler reported in November 1825 how Thanksgiving was more than a church meeting and a meal. They said:
“With us there is another festival that has never been mention by any descriptive writer within our reading. It is thoroughly observed in all the country towns, the day AFTER Thanksgiving. The exercises consist of widely different amusements to suit all kinds of folks. In shooting turkeys and hens, visiting the neighbors, and take a new view of the eclipsed luxuries of the day before. A pumpkin pie, that on Thanksgiving day seemed like the sun, has now the appearance of a waned moon, with a penumbra of bottom crust worth looking at; and he who compares the constellation to bears and eagles would need all his ingenuity in discovering the resemblance of a goose or a chicken to the bones before him. The ladies are allowed to sit up rather later with their sparks, and the little boys, if there be safe ice in the neighborhood, may skate until nine o’clock.”
It must be remembered that life in the 19th century agrarian society of America was difficult manual labor. Families were necessarily large and work of the farm required round-the-clock duty most of the year. Thanksgiving was more than a tradition of a meal and a prayer. It was a tradition of family gathering and celebration.
The acknowledgement of Thanksgiving which would come later on a national scale was driven people in the mid-19th century who grew up with those gathering traditions.
Such was the case of the creation of “Over the River and Through the Wood”, a popular Thanksgiving poem written in 1844.
It was written by an extraordinary woman named Lydia Maria Child – decades before Christmas and Thanksgiving became recognized as official holidays. It is through her efforts and others that we know that Christmas and Thanksgiving were long traditions in North America.
Lydia Maria Child was a woman ahead of her time. Born in 1802 she made her voice heard through the power of her pen.
She was an accomplished writer, editor and civil rights activist – in the early 19th century. During her day she would be controversial and even daring in the eyes of some. In the 19th century man’s world she was a force that tackled the prickly topics of slavery, male dominance and white supremacy.
But while her individual story is fascinating, her simple poem teaches us much about what Thanksgiving was like in the early 19th century. It was, simply, the biggest family celebration of the year. And yes, it was even bigger than Christmas.
In fact, some historians argue that the New England Thanksgiving born of Puritan stock was the answer to the Christmas they denied themselves.
Christmas, in many parts of New England, was a subdued affair compared to Christmas in the American South or of big colonial settlements such as New York or Philadelphia.
The early Puritans of New England did not abolish Christmas, as many historians would like you to think. But they did insist on keeping Christmas a subdued spiritual observance out of fear of it becoming the raucous English-style Christmas of their southern cousins. They wanted nothing of street parades, marauding, gun-fire or fireworks so common to Christmas back then.
But they did want to celebrate and Thanksgiving was their chance to do so.
While the Puritan Thanksgiving never rivaled the southern Christmas it did give New England a chance to “let their hair down” by having large gatherings, days off from their work and business, and for engaging in socials and celebrations featuring music and dance.
The later traditions we celebrate with today in football and Thanksgiving Day parades are merely an extension of traditions born of centuries of Thanksgiving celebration. Chances are, if they had had what we enjoy they would have used it for their celebrations of Thanksgiving as well.