A History of Unusual Thanksgivings

Happy Thanksgiving.

This year’s holiday is more normal than last year’s, before the Covid vaccines had arrived. But it still is unusual for many families, involving some combination of antigen tests, outdoor meals (where the weather allows) and underlying anxiety.

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

However you spend the day, we hope it’s a good one. We want to say thanks specifically to two groups of people: first, to everybody who’s working today (including our colleagues putting out The Times and delivering the print edition); and, second, to all of you — the readers of The Morning. We are grateful that you make time in your day for this newsletter.

The first appearance of the word “thanksgiving” in The Times digital archives — which go back to 1851 — did not refer to the holiday. It instead was a reference on Oct. 4, 1851, to “an appropriate prayer and thanksgiving” from a reverend at the opening of the Queens County’s annual agricultural exhibition.

“Thursday was quite a jubilee in the pleasant village of Jamaica, Long Island,” an unnamed reporter for The New York Daily Times wrote. “The ruddy, manly appearance of the farmers, and the freshness, delicacy, and real natural loveliness of their wives and daughters, (for which the county is justly renowned,) were sights to cheer and amaze the citizen, and many were there to witness and enjoy them.”

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

As other states announced when they would also be observing the holiday that year, The Times printed an infographic — of questionable value — on Oct. 31, 1851:

The origin story of Thanksgiving that’s often told in school — of a friendly meal between pilgrims and Native Americans — is inaccurate. (As far back as 1974, The Times ran an article describing the holiday as a “national day of mourning” for many Native people.)

The real origin of the national holiday dates to Abraham Lincoln. On Oct. 3, 1863, he called for the country, “in the midst of a civil war of unequaled magnitude and severity,” to set aside the last Thursday in November as “a day of Thanksgiving.” The Times published his Thanksgiving proclamation on the front page, and several times subsequently.

While reciting the country’s many blessings — a productive economy, bountiful harvests and a growing economy — Lincoln also recommended that Americans give thanks “with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience.”

Lincoln’s proclamation was in part a response to Sarah Josepha Hale, an editor who had spent decades campaigning for a national day of gratitude.

Like this year’s version, Thanksgiving in 1918 occurred in the midst of a global pandemic. But the atmosphere was surprisingly joyous. World War I had ended on Nov. 11, and the country was celebrating, despite a horrific number of influenza deaths in October. During the weeks leading up to Thanksgiving, Times articles contained relatively few mentions of the so-called Spanish flu.

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

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

By 1930, the country’s mood was much darker. A front-page headline on Thanksgiving Day that year reported: “450 Tons of Food Given to Needy, But Supply Fails.” The police turned away elderly men and women to reserve the food for families with young children.

The Times also reported that the Thanksgiving tradition of ragamuffins — in which children would dress up and go door to door asking for coins or treats — seemed to be fading in Manhattan. “Things ain’t the way they used to be,” a police officer said.

In 1939, President Franklin D. Roosevelt tried to spark the economy by moving Thanksgiving one week earlier, to create a longer Christmas shopping season. Critics mocked the policy as “Franksgiving,” and it failed. Roosevelt announced in 1941 that he was abandoning the experiment for the next year.

Roosevelt ultimately settled on the fourth Thursday of the month — a middle ground that made sure the holiday would not occur later than Nov. 28 and that Christmas shopping could always begin in November.

Thanksgiving in 1963 came only 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, because the organizers felt its cancellation would be “a disappointment to millions of children.”

The Kennedys gathered at the family compound in Hyannis Port, Mass., but they skipped their usual game of touch football. “Like millions of other Americans, they will give the day over to the children and mourn together their loss,” The Times wrote.

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

But the threat from a pandemic — better understood in 2020 than it had been in 1918 — caused many people to stay home last year.

Today will be different. The pandemic is not over, but the worst of it almost certainly is. Vaccines have allowed most Americans to gather safely.

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

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

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

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

Ethical questions: What should a reader do with a big inheritance?

Lives Lived: Margo Guryan recorded an album in the 1960s, but it didn’t find an audience until 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 84.

Last year’s Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade lacked its typical pageantry. Because of the pandemic, there were no spectators, the route spanned only one block and thousands fewer participants marched.

This year, the parade is almost all the way back: About 6,500 people will be working 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 couldn’t travel last year, will fill the streets.

There is one caveat: No kids under 12 will participate. Everyone in the parade must be fully vaccinated, but children 5 to 11 were eligible for their first shots only a few weeks ago. (They can still watch; spectators have no vaccination requirement.)

Their absence will be curious in an event whose stars have included Pikachu, SpongeBob SquarePants and Shrek. “This year, the young people waving from floats will be vaccinated tweens and teens — so viewers can perhaps expect less unadulterated joy and wide-eyed wonder,” The Times’s Julia Jacobs writes.

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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