After rereading the Thanksgiving post I dredged up from the History on the Fox archives last week, I got to wondering just how “traditional” Thanksgiving celebrations were here in Illinois. We all know the story of Abraham Lincoln declaring an official day of Thanksgiving in 1863 during the Civil War. But where did Lincoln get the idea? Why the last Thursday in November? Is turkey really a traditional Thanksgiving treat?
So I started digging into it.
Celebrations to mark the end of the harvest date to ancient times in England. When the colonists calling themselves Pilgrims arrived in the New World in 1620, they brought that tradition with them. And in 1621, the survivors of the first harrowing year on the Massachusetts coast had real reason to offer their thanks to God, their own labors, and to the Native People who’d been key in helping them survive.
When those New Englanders began pioneering the western frontier—Illinois—in the 1830s, they took their traditions, including the end-of-harvest Thanksgiving, with them. Those earliest celebrations, mostly held in late November after the vital corn harvest was largely finished, were family affairs. It wasn’t until 1842 that Illinois Gov. Thomas Ford, in the midst of the harrowing effects of the disastrous economic Panic of 1837, proclaimed Thursday, Dec. 29, as a statewide day of Thanksgiving.
It’s more than likely the pioneers from Vermont, Massachusetts, and other New England and Middle Atlantic states brought Thanksgiving celebrations west with them to Kendall County. So local residents were receptive to Gov. Ford’s proclamation.
“It was, perhaps, the darkest time in the history of our State, and in many a household the pinching of poverty was extreme,” noted Kendall County’s earliest historian, the Rev. E.W. Hicks. “The prayers offered up were heard, for times began to be better, and two years thereafter emigration began to pour in as of old, and money, the life blood of the community, began to circulate through the channels of trade.”
In 1847, Hicks reported, Illinois’ official Thanksgiving Day was set for Thursday, Dec. 16, just in time for people to be thankful a smallpox epidemic at Newark had ended.
And the tradition continued. The Kendall County Courier reported from Oswego in their Nov. 21, 1855 edition: “In acknowledgement of the bounteous blessings bestowed upon us the past year from the hand of the Giver of every good and perfect gift, the Governor of our State has appointed and recommended the 29th day of the present month to be observed as one of thanksgiving and prayer.”
So by the time Lincoln made his 1863 proclamation, he was used to his home state’s Thanksgiving celebrations that had, by then, been observed for some two decades.
After the war, and after Lincoln’s assassination, celebrating the nation continued to celebrate the holiday, though not always at the end of November. Some years, the event was moved to the first week or so of December. In the Nov. 30, 1865 Kendall County Record, editor John R. Marshall wrote: “Next Thursday is the day set apart for national thanksgiving. The war is among the things that were, and our armies are nearly disbanded. Peace and prosperity assume their reign. Give God the praise.”
Those local celebrations, early on, had two main elements: solemn thanks given for whatever blessings people acknowledged, and turkey dinners. Whether it was a carryover from those Pilgrim days or for some other reason, the turkey dinner seems to have been a key Thanksgiving element for all who could afford one.
Marshall even joked about it in that same Nov. 30 issue of the Record. With his tongue firmly in his cheek, he suggested: “Turkies [sic] for Thanksgiving festivities will be received at this office at all hours of the day till the 7th prox. If any are belated, they will be taken after the 7th, and will answer for future dinners. No hint is meant by the foregoing,” he added with a wink.
In 1866, Thanksgiving was again observed on the last Thursday in November, and its observance was linked to veneration of Lincoln. Wrote Marshall in the Nov. 22, 1866 Record, “Next Thursday is the day set aside by the President and by our Governor as a day of Thanksgiving to Almighty God for his many blessings conferred upon the nation and upon this state. This is a relic of the New England fathers, which, under the honored Lincoln, became National property.”
Another tradition that arose, and continued for more than a century, was “union” church services in most communities in Kendall County. The services were generally shared around among each church in town from year to year, as were the sermons. On Nov. 25, 1869, the Record reported that in Oswego, “Thanksgiving was observed in the usual manner by eating a turkey or chicken-pie dinner, religious services were observed in the Presbyterian church, the Methodist minister preached the sermon,” and adding, “Business was not generally suspended.”
So while people attended church and enjoyed family dinners, Thanksgiving wasn’t necessarily a business holiday. Gradually, however, as the years passed, businesses at least closed during the community church services, an eventually closed for the entire day making it more of what we recognize as a true holiday.
The union Thanksgiving church service was a tradition that continued for well over a century. Here in my hometown of Oswego, the high school glee club always sang at those Thanksgiving services through the 1960s. It was one reason the district’s music director wasn’t fond of Catholics. During that era Catholic kids weren’t allowed to engage in other denominations’ services and so were prohibited from the union services, robbing the choir of some of its voices.
By 1872, a third leg had been added to the annual Thanksgiving celebration. As the Record’s Oswego corresponded reported on Dec. 5 of the holiday’s activities: “The turkey shoot was a spirited affair; a number of crack marksmen from abroad were present but the shooting was poor, the cause of which was laid to the wind. It blowed quite hard.”
Eventually, the local sportsmen added pigeons to the day’s shoot as well.
In 1874, a final diversion had been added, even as the severe economic Panic of 1873 began in earnest. Known as “The Long Depression,” the downturn’s effects would extend over two decades. Even so, small towns like Oswego celebrated the holiday, the Record’s Oswego correspondent writing on Nov. 26, 1874 that: “Thanksgiving day is to be celebrated by divine worship in the forenoon, by eating turkey at noon by those who can afford it, and by dancing in the evening of those both old and young who know how and delight in that diversion.”
For several years, the Thanksgiving holiday consisted of those elements: religious services, turkey dinners, a turkey and/or a pigeon shoot, and a dance in the evening. Eventually parts of the celebration began falling away until by the 20th Century it had been whittled down to religious services and a traditional turkey dinner.
Most recently, those joint community church services have gradually disappeared as well. Instead, Thanksgiving has come to mark the beginning of the Christmas shopping season. And, in fact, during the Great Depression of the 1930s, President Franklin D. Roosevelt moved Thanksgiving to the third Thursday of November in order to provide more shopping days until Christmas to boost the retail industry. The move proved unpopular, however, and the celebration has remained on the fourth Thursday since.
So, yes, Thanksgiving as we know it, especially those turkey dinners, really is a tradition that dates back into the nation’s history—here in Illinois, we’ve been enjoying the observances since 1842. And, I think it’s fair to say, doing something for 178 years can legitimately be dubbed a true tradition.