A brief and messy history of Thanksgiving

The history of Thanksgiving is not straightforward. First, there is an ongoing, centuries-old debate on what should be considered the ‘First Thanksgiving’. Second, traditional Thanksgiving fare has very little to do with what was actually eaten at these earliest feasts. And finally, early days of Thanksgiving were celebrated sporadically, primarily in New England, and moved between October, November and December.

The leading contender for ‘The First Thanksgiving’, is a three-day autumnal festival that celebrated the Pilgrim’s first successful harvest in Plymouth in 1621. They invited the local Wampanoag tribe, who brought venison and corn. There were no roast turkeys as the Pilgrims didn’t have ovens, no potatoes since they hadn’t yet been introduced to New England, and no dessert because the sugar supply had run out. In fact, this feast was much more likely to have been prepared in a way consistent with Native American cooking and spicing.

After the initial colonial feasts, Thanksgiving wasn’t celebrated regularly for over 150 years. During the Revolutionary War and some years after, a number of founding fathers, including George Washington, John Adams and James Madison, declared national days of Thanksgiving. Most were held with some consistency at the end of November.

It wasn’t until the Civil War that Abraham Lincoln announced in 1863 that Thanksgiving would be held on the last Thursday of November. This was primarily down to the extraordinary 30-year lobbying effort of Sarah Josepha Buell Hall. Hall was struck by early colonial accounts and wanted to make Thanksgiving an annual affair. She even published recipes for what would become Thanksgiving staples – pumpkin pie, stuffing, roast turkey, etc. – despite the fact that none of these dishes was served at the colonial feasts.

Subsequent presidents stuck with Lincoln’s Thanksgiving date until FDR moved it up a week to encourage pre-Christmas sales during the Great Depression. There was such an uproar of opposition to this, that he finally agreed to sign a bill in 1941 officially fixing Thanksgiving as a National holiday on the last Thursday in November.

Thanksgiving in American Literature

Given the hoopla around the history of Thanksgiving, it might surprise you to know that the holiday doesn’t feature all that heavily with American writers.

Harriet Beecher Stowe gives the holiday’s week-long preparations a chapter in Oldtown Folks. She talks about everything from harvesting apples and pumpkins to ordering festival garments from the busy dressmakers to the making of copious numbers of pies.

Mark Twain, perhaps unsurprisingly, had some very strong opinions on the holiday, and none is particularly good.

Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote a Thanksgiving article in 1916 for The Missouri Ruralist in which she recalled a heated argument with her sister Mary about whether Thanksgiving stuffing should be seasoned with sage or onion.

And much later, Philip Roth takes a very modern look at the Thanksgiving meal as a great equalizer in American Pastoral.

But the best description, from both an historic and culinary perspective, comes from that pillar of American literature (not to mention women’s literature and children’s literature), Louisa May Alcott.

Aunt Jo’s Scrap-Bag

Everyone knows Little Women, but Alcott also published a brilliant, lesser-known collection of short stories between 1871-1882. While it had nothing to do with Little Women, a very clever publisher decided to call Aunt Jo’s Scrap-Bag to capitalize on the popularity of the former publication’s protagonist, Jo, and her penchant for reading and writing.

An Old Fashioned Thanksgiving takes place quite a bit earlier than Little Women, significantly before the American Civil War broke up families. Alcott is clearly harking back to a more idealistic time with her early New Hampshire family,

Sixty years ago, up among the New Hampshire hills, lived Farmer Bassett, with a house full of sturdy sons and daughters growing up about him. They were poor in money, but rich in land and love…

Interestingly, however, this simple family is descended from more elevated stock. Alcott devotes quite a few pages (in a very short story) to a scene in which the children sit by the fire reading ‘the old history book.’ It contains a story about their ancestor, Lord Bassett, their father’s great-great-grandfather, and his daughter, the Lady Matildy, for whom the protagonist, Tilly, is named.

The story is one of wholesome loyalty to both family and King (in this case Charles I). While this may seem out of place in an early American Thanksgiving story, we importantly learn that the Bassetts were among the first colonists to come across with the Pilgrims. In other words, they have some serious Thanksgiving credentials.

The Feast

Food plays a large part in this story, and family time is centered in the kitchen,

‘The big kitchen was a jolly place just now, for in the great fireplace roared a cheerful fire; on the walls hung garlands of dried apples, onions, and corn; up aloft from the beams shone crooked squashes, juicy hams, and dried venison… Savory smells were in the air; on the crane hung steaming kettles, and down among the red embers copper sauce-pans simmered, all suggestive of some approaching feast.’

But plans for Thanksgiving are put on hold when Mr. and Mrs. Bassett are called away to see an ailing mother. After careful deliberation, the children decide to go forward with the meal themselves. Tilly, the oldest daughter, immediately takes charge,

‘Don’t we always do it Sundays and Thanksgivings? Wouldn’t Ma wish the children kept safe and warm anyhow? Can I get up a nice diner with four rascals under my feet all the time? Come, now, if you want roast turkey and onions, plum-puddin’ and mince-pie, you’ll have to do as I tell you, and be lively about it.’

The other children fall in line quickly as Tilly and her sister Prue, get started on the feast. Although they seems confident, their inexperience shows almost immediately, starting with the plum pudding,

‘She felt pretty sure of coming out right, here, for she had seen her mother do it so many times, it looked very easy. So in went suet and fruit, all sorts of spice, to be sure she got the right ones, and brandy instead of wine. But she forgot both sugar and salt, and tied it in the cloth so tightly that it had no room to swell…’

Completely unaware, Tilly moves on to the stuffing. It starts badly, ‘I can’t remember what flavorin’ Ma puts in… sage and onions and apple-sauce go with goose, but I can’t feel sure of anything but pepper and salt for a turkey.

Prue tries to show her knowledge of herbs and runs outside to gather marjoram and summer savory. Instead, she picks catnip and wormwood and returns home to sprinkles them into the stuffing. It doesn’t smell quite right, but the girls proceed anyway.

Obviously, the feast does not come out as planned. That evening, the Mr. and Mrs. Bassett return with aunts, uncles and cousins, all happy that their mother is alive and well. The extended family sit down to a Thanksgiving feast that consists of a turkey that is burnt on one side, inedible stuffing, and a pudding ‘as heavy as lead and as hard as a cannon-ball.

Regardless of the mishaps, the onions and vegetables are well cooked, and the pies Mrs. Bassett prepared in advance were delicious. The girls were able to laugh off their cooking failure, and everyone is happy.

Did you know?

Interestingly, Louisa May Alcott is buried in Concord, Massachusettes on Author’s Ridge in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery alongside other great American writers and thinkers such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorn, Henry David Thoreau and others.

And while this is not the same Sleepy Hollow Cemetery of Washington Irving, there is a similarity between An Old Fashioned Thanksgiving and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow – for a short story there is quite a lot of talk of doughnuts throughout, only here they’re served with cider, apples, apple pie and often cheese.