Illustrated and Written By: Kevin Ward
We all know the story of the first Thanksgiving 395 years ago when pilgrims and the Wampanoag joined together for a three-day celebration of a successful corn harvest. So what has changed since 1621 and how did a harvest festival become our national turkey (or tofurky) day?
Thanks to two paramount people, Sarah Josepha Hale and Abraham Lincoln, Thanksgiving became an official American holiday in 1863. You may be familiar with Lincoln, he is the guy on the five dollar bill, but Sarah is slightly less known today. At the time of Lincoln’s presidency, she was the editor of two magazines geared towards women and was also the creator of the nursery rhyme, “Mary Had A Little Lamb.” Most importantly though, she was someone who was bound and determined to create a national holiday out of Thanksgiving.
It was not uncommon for an American President to declare a national day of Thanksgiving for a particular year, and other times different states would celebrate Thanksgiving at random dates throughout the year. Sarah Hale wrote to the four previous presidents asking them to create the holiday, but had no luck until Old Honest Abe; this may be in part to Lincoln being more of a people’s president, but I think it may have had more to do with the Civil War. Sarah mentioned in her letter that with the darkness upon the nations, it would benefit the states to unite on a national day of Thanksgiving instead of celebrating at arbitrary times during the year. Lincoln listened and declared that the last Thursday of November would be that holiday. That must have been one well-written letter!
It was during this time that we got some of the common images we associate to Thanksgiving, such as the popular image of pilgrims wearing black clothing and belt buckle hats. Historically, the average pilgrim would not be able to afford black clothing, but would have worn more earth toned garb. It is also more likely that not a single turkey was eaten during the original 1621 celebration, but rather carrier pigeon, goose, or duck was the fowl they ate. In fact, the actual menu they enjoyed would look very different than what we eat today; it would have consisted of corn, nuts and roasted pumpkins (not pumpkin pie). I imagine if you showed a pilgrim a green bean casserole, they would just stare at you, or accuse you of being a witch and chase you from the settlement. It goes without saying, things have changed since then (I mean I love roasted pumpkin, pigeon, and unsalted nuts as much as the next guy, but I am happy with our current menus). I could not help but wonder how our modern version of Thanksgiving stacks up to the way it was done in the past, so I decided to search for someone to enlighten me on the subject.
I got the chance to speak to two wonderful sisters at The Woods at Holly Tree; one was a resident, and the other was visiting. The younger sister, Mary, was born in 1940, while the older Ms. J was brought into this world in 1934. They shared with me how their Thanksgiving in 1950 went. Ms. J, who described herself as a daddy’s girl, did the majority of the talking during our interview. She told me with a smile that she had never met a stranger and was happy to chat with me about their life and many stories—which included playing touch football with Roman Gabriel as children. She asked me how many people I knew who could say that.
They first wanted it noted that Wilmington was much smaller back then with nothing much beyond the shipyard. They did not lock their doors at night, and most Fridays the teenagers would go to a local soda shop known as Ezzles where they would listen to the jukebox and dance until it was time to call it a night. They had five other sisters and no brothers, but Ms. J told me she was tomboy enough to play football with her dad and go with him on his maintenance calls.
Their Thanksgiving in 1950 was first and foremost about family. They didn’t think about upcoming Black Friday mall sales and the meal was 90% homegrown. They had turkey with stuffing, butter beans, and all the fixings. The vegetables were straight from their garden, not ones from the grocery store. Their mother would spend all day cooking, often recruiting them to prepare the side dishes. After they ate dinner, they would go outside and play football with their dad to work off the meal, and when the day got too cold, they each had handmade quilts which were sewn by their aunt to wrap up in and stay warm. There was also more charity attached to the holiday.
Wilmington being a smaller town at the time meant you knew most people in town, and if you heard that one of them didn’t have food for Thanksgiving, you would bring them whatever you could spare to amend that problem. Sometimes they would do this directly, and other times at Sunset Park Baptist Church, where Ms. J has been a proud member her whole life. She said she preferred people not knowing who their meal came from and got enjoyment from seeing the smiles on their faces when she would ask how their Thanksgivings went.
Ms. J is a charitable soul, telling me of many people she has helped in secret whether it be a Thanksgiving meal or toys for Christmas. She likes to help, but does not care for the credit, saying instead that she felt joy from knowing she helped someone. I imagine she has given many people something to be grateful for on Thanksgiving, probably more than she will ever know. She is a charitable guardian angel with a sweet smile.
For these two sisters, our modern Thanksgiving almost doesn’t even feel like its own holiday, but more like a rest stop on the road to Christmas. They feel it is not as much about family anymore and that you do not see people feel as excited about it as they used to. It can become a little disillusioning when the ever earlier Black Friday sales have people lined up at stores before the turkey is cold, or the pies are out of the oven. For some, Black Friday (Thursday) shopping is a holiday custom. Still, I feel Thanksgiving is alive and well; I have over the last few years benefited from another of the newer traditions, Friendsgivings. It is like a potluck/Thanksgiving that is perfect for folks who cannot make it home to see family. Much like the 1621 harvest festival, it is a community and friend event (plus you get the bonus of no awkward political discussion with a drunk uncle). I hope your Thanksgiving is full of friends, family, fun and, of course, good food (but not carrier pigeon because they are extinct, so sorry if you had your heart set on that).