Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Americans Have Been Big Eaters at Thanksgiving for a Long Time*

Proclamation of Thanksgiving:  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 Unites States the Eighty-eighth. By the President: Abraham Lincoln

Although a proclamation of Thanksgiving was issued in 1863 by President Lincoln, it was not until December 26, 1941 that President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed a bill into law making the fourth Thursday of November a national day of Thanksgiving. But long before those dates, Americans had set aside a day in late November to give thanks for a multitude of blessings. The turkey and all the fixings, the visiting, and church attendance that we have come to associate with a modern Thanksgiving were already well established by the time of Federal Era in America, a time that corresponds to the Regency Era in England.

In 1834, the New Hampshire Patriot made note of the approaching holiday: A moderate rise in the price of molasses and spices—the increased demand for laces, ribbons, and dancing pumps—the hurrying of tailors, milliners, and mantua makers—frequent and important consultation of young gentlemen—whispering, flushed faces, and anxious looks among young ladies—and lastly, a string of proclamations announcing the 27th of November as a day of Thanksgiving in New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Vermont.”** Farmers harvested their pumpkins, gathered their eggs, fatted their pigs, and selected the best turkeys and chickens for slaughter, all in preparation for the biggest holiday of the year.

I recently completed a story at A Happy Assembly, Mr. Darcy in Old New York, where Mr. Darcy, Georgiana, and Mr. Bingley travel to Tarrytown in the Hudson River Valley to visit Charles Bingley’s Uncle Richard, who has been living in America for twenty-five years. Of course, Darcy falls in love with American, Elizabeth Bennet, but a lot of the history of the region, including the Thanksgiving traditions, is included. Here are three excerpts:

Preparing for the big day
First, advanced preparations for the big day: “Darcy, who loved watching the ships moving up and down the Hudson, had noticed an increase in traffic. While sloops sailed north from the port of New York carrying Jamaica Rum, French and cider brandy, molasses, loaf and brown sugars, Hyson-Souchong and Bohea teas, various spices, dried fruits, coffee, and chocolate, barges filled to overflowing with cages containing live poultry and suckling pigs were arriving from Upstate New York at Tarrytown Harbor.”

Second, the preparation for the feast: “In the Bennet kitchen, Mrs. Kraft, Mrs. MacTavish, and Mrs. Wesley were already busy baking pies with every possible fruit filling, as well as Marlborough pies, brimming with apple and lemon custard. The five Bennet daughters, and every female servant at Longbourn, were either assisting in baking something or at Mrs. Bennet’s beck and call, running back and forth from the pantry cupboard, spring house, or woodpile bringing needed ingredients to the bakers or kindling to those tending the fires.”

Playing Blind Man's Bluff
Finally, the day arrives: “After Mr. Bennet had finished saying grace and reading his proclamation, he began to carve the turkey, and everyone waited in anticipation as the bird was dismembered and the first slices fell onto the meat platter. Plates were heaped with potatoes, sweet potatoes, plum pudding, and vegetables, and everyone was encouraged to gorge themselves. The second course of cheese, squash pies, grapes, jellies, dried fruits, and nuts was eaten with relish, and everyone admitted that a break was necessary before enjoying the desserts.”

After the guests had found the energy to push their chairs away from the table, they would adjourn to the parlor for games and dancing. It was an excellent opportunity for young men and women to flirt or to begin a courtship. Since family and friends would gather on this special day, many chose that date as their wedding day, including Sarah Sullivan and William Mahady, my grandparents, who married on Thanksgiving Day, November 24, 1915.

Hooray for the fun!
Is the pudding done?
Hooray for the pumpkin pie!
Happy Thanksgiving Day!

 *This post originally appeared on Austen Authors.
**Our Own Snug Fireside, Images of the New England Home 1760-1860 by Jane C. Nylander, Yale University Press, p. 264.

1 comment:

  1. We have Harvest festival over here.It's not a national holiday though. It's BIG in one way. It's seen as a religious festival saying thank you to God for the harvest. We don't have aspecial holiday though. Churches and schools celebrate it with special church services and school assemblies. Usually children gather food and the traditional harvest loaf, to distribute amongst some of the elderly who live in the vicinity of their schools.