A History of Unusual Thanksgivings

Happy Thanksgiving.

This year’s holiday is more normal than last year’s, before the Covid vaccines arrived. But it’s still uncommon for many families, involving a combination of antigen testing, outdoor meals (weather permitting), and underlying anxiety.

With that in mind, my colleagues and I have compiled a brief history of Thanksgiving celebrations since the 1850s, focusing on unusual years like this one. Further down in today’s newsletter, you’ll also find last-minute cooking tips, vacation television suggestions, and more.

However you spend the day, we hope it’s a good day. In particular, we would like to thank two groups of people: first, everyone who works today (including our colleagues who publish The Times and deliver the print edition); and secondly to all of you – the readers of The Morning. Thank you for making time in your day for this newsletter.

The first appearance of the word “thanksgiving” in The Times’ digital records – dating back to 1851 – did not refer to the holiday. Instead, it was a reference on October 4, 1851, to “a fitting prayer and thanksgiving” by a pastor at the opening of the annual Queens County Agricultural Show.

“Thursday was quite an anniversary in the cozy little village of Jamaica, Long Island,” wrote an unnamed reporter for The New York Daily Times. “The ruddy, masculine appearance of the peasants and the freshness, delicacy and genuine natural sweetness of their wives and daughters (for which the county is rightly known) were sights to cheer and amaze the citizen, and many were there to witness and enjoy it.”

The first mention of the holiday came less than a week later, in a short news report reporting that the governor of Massachusetts had declared Thursday, November 27, 1851, “a day of public thanksgiving and praise.” There was no national Thanksgiving holiday at that time.

As other states announced when they would also be celebrating the holiday that year, The Times printed an infographic — of dubious value — on October 31, 1851:

The origin story of Thanksgiving often told in school – of a friendly meal between pilgrims and Native Americans – is false. (As early as 1974, The Times ran an article describing the holiday as a “national day of mourning” for many indigenous people.)

The real origin of the National Day goes back to Abraham Lincoln. On October 3, 1863, he called on the country, “in the midst of a civil war of unparalleled magnitude and gravity,” to reserve the last Thursday of November as “a day of Thanksgiving.” The Times ran its Thanksgiving proclamation on its front page, and several times since.

While reciting the nation’s many blessings—a productive economy, bountiful harvests, and a growing economy—Lincoln also advised Americans to give thanks “with humble penance for our national perversity and disobedience.”

Lincoln’s proclamation was in part a response to Sarah Josepha Hale, an editor who had campaigned for a National Day of Gratitude for decades.

Like this year’s version, Thanksgiving fell in 1918 in the midst of a global pandemic. But the atmosphere was surprisingly upbeat. World War I had ended on November 11 and the country was celebrating despite a horrific death toll from flu in October. In the weeks leading up to Thanksgiving, Times articles made relatively little mention of the so-called Spanish flu.

“Thanksgiving Day this year will evoke a deeper gratitude, a spirit of reverence that is more pious than America has felt in many years,” said a Times editorial on Nov. 19.

One factor may have been that the pandemic briefly receded in November, before flaring up again at the end of the year. As has happened for the past two years, a virus ebbed and flowed in mysterious ways.

In 1930 the mood in the country was much darker. A front page headline on Thanksgiving Day that year read, “450 Tons of Food Given to Needy, But Delivery Failed.” Police turned away older men and women from reserving the food for families with young children.

The Times also reported that the Thanksgiving tradition of ragamuffins — in which kids dress up and go door-to-door asking for coins or treats — seemed to be fading in Manhattan. “Things are not as they used to be,” said a police officer.

In 1939, President Franklin D. Roosevelt tried to fuel the economy by moving Thanksgiving a week earlier, to create a longer Christmas shopping season. Critics derided the policy as “Franksgiving” and it failed. Roosevelt announced in 1941 that he would discontinue the experiment for the following year.

Roosevelt finally settled on the fourth Thursday of the month — a middle ground that made sure the holiday fell no later than November 28 and that Christmas shopping could always start in November.

Thanksgiving in 1963 came just six days after the assassination of John F. Kennedy, and most public celebrations were canceled. The Macy’s parade was an exception, The Times reported, as organizers believed its cancellation would be “a disappointment to millions of children.”

The Kennedys gathered on the family grounds in Hyannis Port, Massachusetts, but they skipped their usual game of football. “Like millions of other Americans, they will leave the day to the children and mourn their loss together,” The Times wrote.

The Covid-19 pandemic arguably caused a greater rupture in Thanksgiving traditions than anything before it. Since Lincoln’s proclamation, even during war, depression, and tragedy, most Americans have still found ways to gather with family and friends for a holiday meal.

But the threat of a pandemic — better understood in 2020 than in 1918 — left many people at home last year.

Today will be different. The pandemic is not over yet, but the worst is almost certain. Vaccines have enabled most Americans to gather safely.

The country is hardly in a happy mood. While people are happy to be together again, many mourn the losses of the past two years and are deeply concerned about the future of the country. Yet mixed feelings are also part of the Thanksgiving tradition, all the way back to Lincoln’s proclamation.

More about the holiday: For Rafael Alvarez – a writer for “The Wire” – today is an opportunity to remember his father’s penknife and his parents’ Baltimore dreams.

Rich: Kanye West created a jacket for Gap. It makes you famous.

Ranking: Vote for the best book of the past 125 years.

Ethical Questions: What should a reader do with a large inheritance?

Life lived: Margo Guryan recorded an album in the 1960s, but it only found an audience in the late 1990s. “People say I’ve been rediscovered,” she said at the time. “It’s not true – I’ve been discovered.” Guryan died at the age of 84.

Last year’s Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade lacked its typical pageantry. Due to the pandemic, there were no spectators, the route was only one block and thousands less participants walked.

This year, the parade is almost completely back: some 6,500 people will work on it, up from 960 last year. The number of giant balloons and floats is back to roughly what it was two years ago. And 10 marching bands, many of which were unable to travel last year, will fill the streets.

There is one caveat: no children under the age of 12 will participate. Everyone in the parade must be fully vaccinated, but children ages 5 to 11 were eligible for their first injections only a few weeks ago. (They can still watch; spectators are not required to vaccinate.)

Their absence will be curious in an event that stars the likes of Pikachu, SpongeBob SquarePants and Shrek. “This year, the young people swinging from floats will be vaccinated tweens and teens – so viewers might expect less unadulterated joy and great wonder,” writes Julia Jacobs of The Times.

The televised parade will feature the Rockettes, Carrie Underwood, Mickey Guyton, Kristin Chenoweth, Jon Batiste and Nelly. It starts at 9 a.m. Eastern, and you can watch it on NBC, Telemundo, or the Peacock streaming service. — Sanam Yar, a morning writer

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