A Brief History of Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving, even before being acknowledged as an official holiday, has been around for centuries.  Most people recognize the Mayflower pilgrims feasting with the Wampanoag Indians at Plymouth Rock as the “first” Thanksgiving in 1620.  However, the tradition of giving thanks through a feast or ceremony dates back much farther.  Many other cultures across oceans and continents, like Egypt, the Romans, and the Greeks have records of paying tribute and dining on elaborate feasts after a bountiful fall harvest.  There is also the Jewish festival of Sukkot that bears a strong resemblance to the traditional idea of Thanksgiving.  Lastly, many Native American tribes had traditions of revelry and feasting to commemorate the end of the fall season long before European settlers ever arrived in North America.

Along with this role of indigenous tribes and their traditions, there are some who view the pop culture, traditional story of Thanksgiving as controversial.  They see it as a “warm and fuzzy”, too-cute version of the tensions and bloodshed that actually happened between European settlers and Native Americans during the beginnings of colonization.  There are groups around the country that gather on Thanksgiving Day to commemorate a Day of Mourning for the millions that died as a result of the European encroachment and subsequent violence.

In 1817, New York was one of several states to adopt an annual Thanksgiving Day, although each state celebrated on a different day and most of the Southern states had never even heard of a Thanksgiving holiday.  During the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln declared the official creation of a Thanksgiving Day in 1863, to be celebrated on the fourth Thursday of November.

A Victorian Thanksgiving

During the Victorian era, the Thanksgiving dinner took on mythical proportions with elaborate preparations and planning.  Dining out for Thanksgiving was the once fashionable thing to do to celebrate the holiday, and restaurants and hotels competed to come up with the most ornate menus and lavish ten course meals.  Later, and for those that could not afford such luxury and prepared Thanksgiving at home like most do today, the menu could still be quite daunting- refrigeration was in its infancy and not yet a common kitchen staple, and each dish was prepared from scratch.  A typical menu from 1905 listed the following dishes to be served:

Oysters on the half-shell with cocktail sauce in pepper shells.

Radishes, celery, salted nuts.

Clear consommé with tapioca.

Filet of flounder with pimentos and olives;
dressed cucumbers.

Roast turkey; cranberry jelly in small molds;
creamed chestnuts; glazed sweet-potato.

Cider frappé in turkey sherbet-cups.

Quail in bread croustades; dressed lettuce.

Blazing mince pie.

Cheese with almonds; wafers.

Angel parfait in glasses; small cakes; coffee.

Later, during the 1950s, the American Thanksgiving menu took on a slightly more familiar tone.  With menus like the one below found in many women’s magazines from the time, it was still an undertaking to prepare!

Marilyn Monroe and her Thanksgiving costar

Cream of Oyster Soup topped with Whipped Cream

Celery, Salted or Sugared Almonds

Bread Sticks

Roast Turkey

Chestnut Dressing with Giblet or Plain Gravy

Cranberry Sauce with Apple Balls or Cranberry Jelly

Mashed Potatoes, Sweet Potatoes with Marshmallows

Boiled Onions

Stuffed Squash, relishes, jelly

Pumpkin Pie with cheese, ice cream, cookies, fruit, coffee, nuts, raisins

This menu was touted as a traditional “New England Thanksgiving Dinner” by The New Settlement Cookbook in 1954.  And as is the stereotype of postwar America, the lady of the house did all the preparation and cooking for the big meal and the husband was in charge of carving up the turkey for all the guests.

Typical 1950s Thanksgiving image

In the spirit of helping the less fortunate, a newer Thanksgiving Day tradition that has developed during the mid-20th century is the Presidential “pardoning” of a turkey.  The selected bird is saved from being slaughtered and enjoys early retirement on a farm.  Several Governors have also adopted the pardon practice to help celebrate the holiday.

Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade float

However you choose to celebrate Thanksgiving, we at the History Museum of Western Virginia hope it is filled with family, friends, and wonderful memories to be cherished for years to come!  Happy Thanksgiving!