I’ve always loved Thanksgiving. That probably has something to do with the fact that my birthday falls around – and sometimes on – Thanksgiving, so I’ve been lucky enough to have a delicious feast in succession with my birthday each year. Additionally, as John so eloquently stated earlier, “Thanksgiving has somehow managed to maintain its integrity in an age when most special days are commercialized to the point of caricature.” Indeed, Thanksgiving is the one day each year when everyone in America is doing pretty much the same thing: overeating, sharing good company and watching football through the back of their eyelids.
Thanksgiving hasn’t always been such a codified experience, however, nor was it celebrated on the same day by all Americans. In the 1840′s, people living in the Western, Mid-Atlantic and Southern states “ignored the holiday,” as I learned last night while reading my daughter Thank You, Sarah, a beautifully illustrated and engagingly written children’s book. Laurie Halse Anderson, the famed YA author who lives near my hometown in Mexico, NY, wrote the story, which is accompanied by Matt Faulkner’s lush, gorgeous drawings. The book tells the tale of Sarah Hale, the feminist abolitionist who among many other achievements in her lifetime, “saved” Thanksgiving.
Hale, the first female magazine editor in America, lobbied five presidents in order to see her dream of having a nationwide Thanksgiving Day become a reality. Taylor, Fillmore, Pierce and Buchanan had all refused her suggestion, but finally, in 1863, in the midst of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln declared the fourth Thursday in November a national holiday. The first nationwide Thanksgiving holiday was celebrated November 26, 1863, just one week after Lincoln gave the Gettysburg Address.
The Thanksgiving we learned about as children, that of the “Pilgrims and Indians,” took place in 1621, but “historians believe that the first European Thanksgiving in North America took place on the coast of Florida in 1513,” when Spanish explorer Ponce de Leon wished to show his gratitude for successfully crossing the Atlantic. In the 1600′s, colonists held annual fall festivals, but each community set its own date for the feast based on the weather and the completion of the harvest.
Sarah Hale wasn’t arbitrary in her choosing of the fourth Thursday in November as a day to give thanks; George Washington had declared the same day a “Day of Thanksgiving and prayer” in 1789. Anderson says, “In 1939 and 1940, Thanksgiving was held on the third Thursday in November,” in order to lengthen the holiday shopping season. (Some perspective for those of us who think the rampant consumerism we’ll witness on Black Friday is part of a new trend.) The nation was outraged by Roosevelt’s decision to move the holiday, so in 1941, “Congress passed a joint resolution declaring once and for all that Thanksgiving would be celebrated on the fourth Thursday in November.”
All of this I gleaned from a bedtime story read to my daughter, who I fear is part of a generation which also faces the threat of losing Thanksgiving as it gradually becomes subsumed by the clownishness of Christmas. In Central New York, where Anderson and I both grew up, people all over have put their Christmas decorations up already, and to a garish degree. The most disturbing part about that to me is that when I was a kid in Oswego, NY, you’d never see Christmas decorations up before Thanksgiving, but one thing you would see is snow. That’s not the case any longer. As we buy more and more Santa blow-ups and lawn reindeer, we’re contributing to the destruction of the land which holds us. So to everyone who has held off on Christmas in order to keep this beautiful autumnal celebration sacred, I say thank you. And my thanks to Laurie Halse Anderson and her distant relative Sarah Hale for honoring a splendid tradition.