In the middle of the American Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln, prompted by a series of editorials written by Sarah Josepha Hale, proclaimed a national Thanksgiving Day, to be celebrated on the final Thursday in November 1863. That was this date – 26 November – in 1863. So today marks the anniversary of the first federally mandated Thanksgiving day.
The document proclaiming the day, written by Secretary of State William H. Seward, reads as follows:
The year that is drawing towards its close, has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added, which are of so extraordinary a nature, that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever watchful providence of Almighty God. In the midst of a civil war of unequalled magnitude and severity, which has sometimes seemed to foreign States to invite and to provoke their aggression, peace has been preserved with all nations, order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere except in the theatre of military conflict; while that theatre has been greatly contracted by the advancing armies and navies of the Union. Needful diversions of wealth and of strength from the fields of peaceful industry to the national defence, have not arrested the plough, the shuttle, or the ship; the axe had enlarged the borders of our settlements, and the mines, as well of iron and coal as of the precious metals, have yielded even more abundantly than heretofore. Population has steadily increased, notwithstanding the waste that has been made in the camp, the siege and the battle-field; and the country, rejoicing in the consciousness of augmented strength and vigor, is permitted to expect continuance of years, with large increase of freedom.
No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy.
It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and voice by the whole American people. I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens. And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to his tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility and Union.
In testimony whereof, I have hereunto set my hand, and caused the seal of the United States to be affixed.
Done at the city of Washington, this third day of October, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, and of the independence of the United States the eighty-eighth.
Proclamation of President Abraham Lincoln, October 3, 1863.
Since 1863, Thanksgiving has been observed annually in the United States.
Of course there had been state and national days of thanksgiving going all the way back to 1621 when the pilgrims celebrated their first harvest in the New World. But Lincoln’s proclamation established the date and the celebration as a federal holiday in perpetuity. His proclamation was slightly modified by FDR in 1939. November had five Thursdays that year (instead of the more-common four), Roosevelt declared the fourth Thursday as Thanksgiving rather than the fifth one. Although many popular histories state otherwise, he made clear that his plan was to establish the holiday on the next-to-last Thursday in the month instead of the last one as a general rule. With the country still in the midst of The Great Depression, Roosevelt thought an earlier Thanksgiving would give merchants a longer period to sell goods before Christmas. Increasing profits and spending during this period, Roosevelt hoped, would help bring the country out of the Depression. At the time, advertising goods for Christmas before Thanksgiving was considered inappropriate. Fred Lazarus, Jr., founder of the Federated Department Stores (later Macy’s), is credited with convincing Roosevelt to push Thanksgiving to a week earlier to expand the shopping season, and within two years the change passed through Congress into law.
Republicans decried the change, calling it an affront to the memory of Lincoln. People began referring to November 30 as the “Republican Thanksgiving” and November 23 as the “Democratic Thanksgiving” or “Franksgiving”. Regardless of the politics, many localities had made a tradition of celebrating on the last Thursday, and many football teams had a tradition of playing their final games of the season on Thanksgiving; with their schedules set well in advance, they could not change. Since a presidential declaration of Thanksgiving Day was not legally binding, Roosevelt’s change was widely disregarded. 23 states went along with Roosevelt’s recommendation, 22 did not, and some, like Texas, could not decide and took both days as government holidays.
In 1940 and 1941, years in which November had four Thursdays, Roosevelt declared the third one as Thanksgiving. As in 1939, some states went along with the change while others retained the traditional last-Thursday date. On October 6, 1941, both houses of the U.S. Congress passed a joint resolution fixing the traditional last-Thursday date for the holiday beginning in 1942. However, in December of that year the Senate passed an amendment to the resolution that split the difference by requiring that Thanksgiving be observed annually on the fourth Thursday of November, which was sometimes the last Thursday and sometimes (less frequently) the next to last. So it remains to this day.
For many years my wife and I celebrated Thanksgiving with her cousins in Philadelphia. They always had 20 to 30 people over, so it was a big blowout with mountains of food. But then when my wife died I stopped going to her cousins’, and my son and I celebrated alone for a while. This was both an opportunity and a challenge. You see, there’s not much on the traditional Thanksgiving plate I like. I’m more or less indifferent to roast turkey, especially when others cook it. The general idea that you should have the biggest, monster bird possible has always seemed to me to be a mistake. Sure, a 25 lb bird makes a great show when first presented on the table, but more often than not it’s been cooked to death, so that the breast meat is dry and tasteless, made only slightly palatable by tons of gravy. Every year television cooks share their secrets for making the breast moist from very slow cooking, to internal basting, or whatever. For me the only good solution is to roast a small bird – 8 to 10 lbs. If you need more meat because you have a large crowd, roast two birds. And roast at very high heat, as hot as possible, 500 degrees or higher if possible. That way you get moist breast meat and a delectably thin and crisp skin.
Before I left the U.S. and stopped cooking Thanksgiving dinner altogether, I switched gears and started smoking the turkey. Here’s an image of my setup.
To the left of the apparatus is the smoke box, and to the right is the chamber where the meat smoked. This is a bit of a rigmarole and I’ll spare you the details. You need to have the right equipment AND know what you are doing. You have to brine the bird first for about 24 hours, then smoke it for 8 to 10 hours. This means a long day for the cook, because you have to make sure that the smoke box is producing constant smoke. But for my money this is the best way to cook a whole turkey; the meat is moist, rich, and delicious.
In theory it keeps for a long time too, but not in my house. I also make a mean pumpkin pie with local maple syrup and toasted hazel nuts, but you’ll have to wait for the recipe. Happy Thanksgiving.