Monday, April 29, 2013

Giving Thanks at Thanksgiving: A Curious History

      Thanksgiving Day has a long and curious history and did not originate entirely with the Pilgrims at Plymouth, for Thanksgiving days are mentioned in the Bible ---days set apart for giving thanks to God for some special mercy. These days of fast and prayer were customary in England before the Reformation, and later the Protestants appointed certain days of praise and thanks for various blessings. The discovery of the Gunpowder Plot in 1605 in London brought the common sentiment of Thanksgiving. A scheme had been formed to blow up parliament house on the 5th of November, the first day of the session. Great quantities of gunpowder and inflammable material were found concealed in the vaults underneath the building. The plot was discovered and the traitors were executed. In consequences of this deliverance the day was ordered to be kept as "a public thanksgiving to Almighty God" every year that unfeigned thankfulness may never be forgotten, and that all ages to come may yield praises to God's divine majesty for the same." All ministers were ordered to say prepars thereon, for which special forms were provided. This annual thanksgiving, together with one established later on May 29, was abolished in 1833 in England, for both had fallen into disuse. For several years afterwards, however, these days were recognized in New England by the Episcopal church on account of its place in their church calendars. England continued to have special days appointed for giving thanks. For example, in 1872 there was a day selected for the public to offer prayers of thanksgiving for the recovery of the former King Edward, then prince of Wales, from typhoid fever.

Protestant pilgrims are shown on the deck of the ship Speedwell before their departure for the New World from Delft Haven, Holland, on July 22, 1620. William Brewster, holding the Bible, and pastor John Robinson lead Governor Carver, William Bradford, Miles Standish, and their families in prayer. The prominence of women and children suggests the importance of the family in the community. At the left side of the painting is a rainbow, which symbolizes hope and divine protection. Weir (1803–1890) had studied art in Italy and taught art at the military academy at West Point.
The dimensions of this oil painting on canvas are 548 cm x 365 cm (216 inches x 144 inches; 18 feet x 12 feet), 1844.

      The first thanksgiving on the American continent was held by an English minister named Wolfall, and was celebrated off the coast of Newfoundland. This pious man accompanied the Frobisher expedition which brought the first English colony to North America. The log of the ship gives the record of the day's observances and tells how on Monday, May 28, 1578, aboard the Ayde, the men received communion, and how Minister Wolfall in a sermon gave humble and hearty thanks to God for his miraculous deliverance in these dangerous places. This was the first Christian sermon preached in North American waters. Again in 1607 there was a similar service held at Sagadahoc--a little village on the coast of Maine. There is little record of this thanksgiving except that it consumed only a few hours of the day, after which the people returned to their labors.
      The great American Thanksgiving day had its origin in the Massachusetts colony in 1621, and Gov. William Bradford, the first governor of that little band of sturdy pilgrims, sent out the first Thanksgiving proclamation, setting apart a day for prayer and rejoicing over the plenteous harvest of that year. the Englishmen recalled their Gay Fawkes thanksgiving, and the Dutch remembered hearing their their ancestors speak of the great day of praise and prayer held at Leyden, Holland, in 1578, when that city was delivered from a siege. So, the entire colony began their pious preparation for what proved to be the most joyful Thanksgiving the colony ever knew, for after the first one, which lasted several days, the Puritan Thanksgiving ment long sermons, long prayers and tired countenances. Governor Bradford determined that the initial Thanksgiving should be celebrated with no little ceremony and that feasting should play a part in the occasion. History tells us that he sent out four men, who were to search for game for the feast. Many fowls were shot--in fact, enough to meet the wants of the colony for a week. Wild turkeys predominated so it seems that the turkey made it's appearance early in the history of Thanksgiving. The day selected was December 13 (old style). At the dawn of that day a small cannon was fired from the hill and a procession was formed near the beach, close to where the Plymouth Rock now rests. Elder Brewster, wearing his ministerial garb and carrying the Bible, led the procession as it moved solemnly along the street. The men walked three abreast, with Governor Bradford in the rear. There was a long service in the meeting house, and after it was over there was a dinner--and such a dinner had never been known in the colony, for, apart from the savory turkey and other wild fowl, the women had done their share in providing good things from the limited supply at their command. The most dramatic incident occurred when the dinner was in progress, for as if by magic 90 friendly indigenous men, under King Massasoit, appeared, carrying haunches of venison as an addition to the feast. Thanksgiving day soon lengthened into days for the psalm saying and feasting, interspersed with war dances, were continued several days.
Pilgrim Hall Museum, the oldest public
museum in the United States.
      After that Thanksgiving, holidays took on a different aspect, and occurred at any season: sometimes twice a year, or sometimes a year or two were skipped, just as it pleased the governor of the colony, until 1664, when the day became a formal one in Massachusetts. Other colonies followed the example, and pretty soon all New England joined in giving thanks on the same day.
      During the Revolutionary war Thanksgiving days became a fashion, and the continental congress set apart at least eight days during one year for that purpose. On December 18, 1777, General Washington issued a proclamation for a general Thanksgiving by the soldiers of the Continental army. In 1789 congress decided to ask the president to issue a proclamation asking the people to suspend work and give thanks on a certain day of the year. There had been considerable opposition to the passage of the bill, some of the reasons given being more humorous then serious.  President Washington acquiesced in the wishes of congress and issued a proclamation appointing November 26 of that year as the day for the American people to join in thanksgiving to God for the care and protection he had given them in their plentiful harvest and freedom from epidemics.
      From time to time American presidents issued proclamations in our past, but these were generally left to the governors of the states to determine on what day Thanksgiving should occur. Under the administration of John Adams two national fast days were observed, but no real Thanksgiving. It was not until 1815, after three national fast on account of the war, that another national Thanksgiving was appointed by the president, James Madison. This was due to peace with Great Britain. After this there was another lull in proclamations as far as presidents were concerned until 1849, when President Taylor set a day of fast on August the third on account of the cholera. Meanwhile the national Thanksgiving day seemed to be dying out, except in the New England states. Then came the Civil war, and the nation was again summoned to fasting, and two such days were kept in 1861--January 4 and September 26--but it was not until 1863 that the horizon had so brightened as to warrant the appointment of a national Thanksgiving. Immediately after the Battle of Gettysburg Mrs. Sarah J. Hale, a Boston woman, wrote to President Lincoln suggesting a national thanksgiving, and following her advice, the president set apart Thursday, August 6, as a day of "praise and prayer." On November 26 of the same year another Thanksgiving was kept, and this was really a great festival and observed in every northern state. In 1864 the 24th of November was kept. After this, with one exception, our great national day of thanks has been celebrated on the last Thursday in November. 
      The presidential proclamations contain very little that is new or original and usually take the form of an essay. In 1898, after the Spanish American war, President McKinley had a chance to very the conventional form by "giving special thanks for the restoration of peace." This was just 100 years after Washington's proclamation. President Roosevelt, who always did original things, declared "that a Thanksgiving proclamation could not be made a brilliant epigrammatical." The proclamation of the president stamps the feast with a sort of official character--something possessed by no other holiday. This proclamation does not make it a legal holiday--it merely recommends that the people suspend business for the day. A special statute in each state is required to make the day a legal holiday and this has not been enacted in every state.
Traditional foods of Thanksgiving.
      The day was originally set apart for thanksgiving fasting, prayer and religious devotions, but the modern Thanksgiving has become a day of feasting and jollity and is made the occasion of all sorts of sports and festivities. The craze for outdoor life keeps many from the churches, although the places of worship continue to be filled with "a goodly company, " who gather to give thanks to him "from whom cometh every good and every perfect gift."
      The turkey is still king of the Thanksgiving feast and as an addition the good things of the field and vineyard have been added. the famous pigeon pie, which was a popular Thanksgiving dish in the early part of the nineteenth century, is rarely seen in these days. the wild pigeons, which alighted in great numbers on the buckwheat fields, were enticed by a decoy duck within a spring net and caught by the hundred. They were kept alive and fattened on grain until the day before Thanksgiving, when they were killed and made into a pie for the Thanksgiving table. 
      Most of the old customs of the day have passed out of existence. The turkey raffle with dice was still a custom in some parts of the country during the early 1900s. Usually the turkey was a tough bird, which was purchased cheap by the proprietor of the saloon (for the raffle usually took place there). The raffle, of course, drew a crowd of men, who incidentally patronized the bar during the proceedings. Another sportive feature of Thanksgiving that is no longer in vogue was the shooting match, where live turkeys tied to sticks were used. This cruel practice was abandoned because the New England clergy objected, not on the account of its cruelty, but because it kept the men away from the church services. 
      New York city was also responsible for some of the strangest Thanksgiving customs. Young men and boys used to dress themselves in fantastic garb and parade the streets--hundreds of the boys wearing their sisters' old clothes, their faces smeared with paint and their heads covered with wigs during the 1800s. As late as 1885 they held parades and made the street hideous with their thumping drums and blaring trumpets. In 1870 this queer performance took on the dignity of a political parade and prizes were distributed to the companies wearing the most unique clothing.  Senator William M. Tweed, the famous political boss of that period, was the donor of a prize of $500 in gold. This custom was undoubtedly a survival of Guy Fawkes days, carried out on a later day in the year: for some unknown reason it was practiced only in New York city.
      Thanksgiving has always been a day of charity, and in the old days it was considered bad luck to turn even a tramp from the door, and today our friendly inns, soup kitchens and numerous charitable institutions have their turkey dinners, usually gifts from charitable people. Even prisons serve their inmates with a hearty meal and have some sort of service of praise. The customs of the great national holiday may have changed somewhat, yet the spirit of the first Thanksgiving, which was held at Plymouth, in 1621, still hovers about the national day of prayer and praise of the twenty first century-- a spirit of thankfulness to God for his mercy and kindness to the people of our great American republic. 
(Edited by Grimm)

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