Thanksgiving may have begun with the pilgrims in 1621, but it wasn’t an official observation until 1863 when, in the midst of the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln issued a presidential proclamation: “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….”
Around that time, Thanksgiving showed up regularly in stories and poems, a mini-era of turkey-day literature. Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote about a Thanksgiving dinner that was crashed by a profligate daughter (1857). O’ Henry wrote about a bum who was stuffed with two Thanksgiving dinners while one of his benefactors, who had fallen on hard times, was starving (1907). Louisa May Alcott wrote about an old-fashioned Thanksgiving (1881).
Here are some quotes from these authors and others of the era providing us with a little Thanksgiving nostalgia as we prepare to lay off our computer keys in favor of knives and forks.
"Ah! on Thanksgiving day, when from East and from West,
From North and South, come the pilgrim and guest,
When the gray-haired New Englander sees round his board
The old broken links of affection restored,
When the care-wearied man seeks his mother once more,
And the worn matron smiles where the girl smiled before.
What moistens the lips and what brightens the eye?
What calls back the past, like the rich pumpkin pie?"
– John Greenleaf Whittier, "The Pumpkin" (1850)
"The observance of Thanksgiving Day–as a function–has become general of late years. The Thankfulness is not so general. This is natural. Two-thirds of the nation have always had hard luck and a hard time during the year, and this has a calming effect upon their enthusiasm."
– Mark Twain, Following the Equator, a Journey around the World (1897)
"Turkey: A large bird whose flesh, when eaten on certain religious anniversaries has the peculiar property of attesting piety and gratitude."
– Ambrose Bierce, The Devil's Dictionary (1911)
"There is one day that is ours. There is one day when all we Americans who are not self-made go back to the old home to eat saleratus biscuits and marvel how much nearer to the porch the old pump looks than it used to. Bless the day. President Roosevelt gives it to us. We hear some talk of the Puritans, but don't just remember who they were. Bet we can lick 'em, anyhow, if they try to land again. Plymouth Rocks? Well, that sounds more familiar.”
– O Henry, "Two Thanksgiving Day Gentlemen" (1907)
“November had come; the crops were in, and barn, buttery, and bin were overflowing with the harvest that rewarded the summer`s hard work. The big kitchen was a jolly place just now, for in the great fireplace roared a cheerful fire; on the walls hung garlands of dried apples, onions, and corn; up aloft from the beams shone crook-necked squashes, juicy hams, and dried venison–for in those days deer still haunted the deep forests, and hunters flourished. Savory smells were in the air; on the crane hung steaming kettles, and down among the red embers copper saucepans simmered, all suggestive of some approaching feast.”
-Louisa May Alcott, "An Old-fashioned Thanksgiving" (1881)
"Two long tables have been made into one, and one of the big tablecloths Gran'ma had when she set up housekeepin' is spread over 'em both. We all set round, Father, Mother, Aunt Lydia Holbrook, Uncle Jason, Mary, Helen, Tryphena Foster, Amos, and me. How big an' brown the turkey is, and how good it smells! There are bounteous dishes of mashed potato, turnip, an' squash, and the celery is very white and cold, the biscuits are light an' hot, and the stewed cranberries are red as Laura's cheeks. Amos and I get the drumsticks; Mary wants the wish-bone to put over the door for Hiram, but Helen gets it. Poor Mary, she always did have to give up to 'rushin' Helen,' as we call her. The pies,–oh, what pies Mother makes; no dyspepsia in 'em, but good-nature an' good health an' hospitality! Pumpkin pies, mince an' apple too, and then a big dish of pippins an' russets an' bellflowers, an', last of all, walnuts with cider from the Zebrina Dickerson farm!”
-Eugene Field, "Thanksgivin’ Out West" (1885)