Editor’s note: This story was originally published Nov. 18, 1990.
Thanksgiving turkeys have long been the main ingredient of family meals, but the day itself hasn’t always included time off from work. Early writers accused South Mississippians of chasing the buck instead of showing appreciation for a bountiful nation.
“Thanksgiving Day is given little recognition here,” the Daily Herald (forerunner to the Sun Herald) reported in 1891. “There is no holiday, and people work, and children attend school as usual because Thanksgiving Day comes too near Christmas to make a general holiday of it.”
“We apprehend that in the great majority of households in this fair and happy land, the solemn and eloquent Thanksgiving proclamations of the president and governor, if read at all, were silently ignored, and the pursuit of the almight dollar went on as usual.
“T’is true. T’is pity.”
The Coast’s ignorance of the holiday was astonishing. For 28 years, Thanksgiving had been an official national holiday.
The first Thanksgiving, as all schoolchildren know, was staged in 1621 by the Plymouth Pilgrims. The holiday didn’t come with regularity until Sarah Josepha Hale, a self-educated New Hampshire teacher, editor and women’s rights advocate, entered the picture.
Hale persuaded President Abraham Lincoln to proclaim a national Thanksgiving Day in 1863. And every year since then, it has been re-proclaimed.
Historically, President George Washington got the jump on Lincoln, when in 1789 he dedicated Nov. 26 to the “service of the great and glorious Being.” But those early Thanksgivings were sporadic and a matter of local custom. Even Lincoln wasn’t able to changed that overnight.
“In a church or two, bells were rung, calling those who were thankful to give thanks and supplicate future favors, but the mass of people went about their usual business and quickly forgot all about the president’s and governor’s proclamations,” the Herald also reported in 1891.
“The only association with the day is a good dinner, headed by a fine fat turkey gobbler, with cranberry sauce and planked by celery.”
The previous year, the Herald had observed, “The fact that the public school was not closed has been the subject of much comment.”
A big step came in 1895 when the schools finally shut down for the holiday. Within four years, businesses, public offices, libraries and courts were following suit. Everyone was taking time to be thankful.
“The Thanksgiving Turkey is abroad in the land and he’s roosting as high as he can,” the 1899 Herald said. “He finds it impossible to offer up thanks for being murdered and eaten by man.”
Once stuffed and with time on their hands, Coast residents began planning football and croquet games, schooner races and special theater matinees. It didn’t take them long to rev up the holiday spirit.
“Pleasure becomes the handmaiden of the hour and gaiety swings the golden censer of merriment, while joy unrestrained fills the banquet halls with happy laughter,” the newspaper reported in 1902.
But all did not remain fun and games.
“A custom in vogue for a number of years whereby the pupils in public schools may contribute to the poor will again be inaugurated on Thanksgiving Day,” the Herald reported in 1916.
Students, civic groups, even local governments dug into their pockets to pay for food and clothing for the needy. Turkeys averaged $1.75 apiece; a new overcoat, $7.50.
Then came the horrors of the first war to turn the entire world into a battlefield.
“Peace with victory after 19 months of war gave much significance to the day,” the Herald wrote in 1918, after the World War I armistice.
“A deep feeling of gratitude and thankfulness greater than can come to a nation through material prosperity pervaded America’s observance of Thanksgiving Day.”
That theme has prevailed to the 1990s, through three more wars, financial recessions, inflation and an assortment of other spirit-dampening trends. But the pursuit of the almighty dollar criticized a century ago has not resurfaced.
At least it hasn’t recurred on Thanksgiving Day. But beware of The Friday After, now the largest, most maddening sales day of the year.
Kat Bergeron, a veteran feature writer specializing in Gulf Coast history and sense of place, is retired from the Sun Herald. She writes the Mississippi Coast Chronicles column as a freelance correspondent. Reach her at BergeronKat@gmail.com or at Southern Possum Tales, P.O. Box 33, Barboursville VA 22923.