The action in my recently-released novel THE WARLOCK’S CURSE takes place over the winter holidays—Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s—but unfortunately, they prove anything but festive for my main characters, William Edwards and Jenny Hansen. By the time we get to Christmas, neither of them are feeling much like celebrating … and by the time we get to New Year’s Day, they’re both probably more interested in drinking to drown their sorrows than to celebrate. The only holiday that comes off without some horribly tragedy attached to it is Thanksgiving—and even that is marred by a family quarrel. (But then, what Thanksgiving isn’t?)
By 1910 (the year the book takes place), Thanksgiving was a well-established holiday. It had officially been annual tradition since 1863, when Abraham Lincoln proclaimed a national day of “Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens”, to be celebrated on Thursday, November 26. (There was a whole kerfuffle about the date of Thanksgiving during the Roosevelt administration, which led to the “Year with Two Thanksgivings” in 1939 … an interesting historical aberration which I will have to file away for incorporation in a future book, as I doubt that if anyone were to select a year in which Americans were doubly-thankful for anything it would be 1939.)
Anyway, back to 1910 … by this point, the mythology of Thanksgiving that is still taught it many schools today (a jolly coming together of pilgrims and Native American over a groaning board of plenty) was well entrenched. Certainly, precious few associated the revelries of the canonical celebration with the first Thanksgiving proclamation issued by the colonists of Charlestown, Massachusetts, on June 20, 1676. That proclamation named the day of Thanksgiving as June 29, 1676, and was really quite astonishing:
“The Holy God having by a long and Continual Series of his Afflictive dispensations in and by the present Warr with the Heathen Natives of this land, written and brought to pass bitter things against his own Covenant people in this wilderness, yet so that we evidently discern that in the midst of his judgements he hath remembered mercy, having remembered his Footstool in the day of his sore displeasure against us for our sins, with many singular Intimations of his Fatherly Compassion, and regard; reserving many of our Towns from Desolation Threatened, and attempted by the Enemy, and giving us especially of late with many of our Confederates many signal Advantages against them, without such Disadvantage to ourselves as formerly we have been sensible of, if it be the Lord’s mercy that we are not consumed, It certainly bespeaks our positive Thankfulness, when our Enemies are in any measure disappointed or destroyed; and fearing the Lord should take notice under so many Intimations of his returning mercy, we should be found an Insensible people, as not standing before Him with Thanksgiving, as well as lading him with our Complaints in the time of pressing Afflictions …”
If you didn’t read that whole quote (and who can blame you?) here’s the abridged version:
“Thanks a lot, God [eyeroll] for leading us into this wilderness (which isn’t really a wilderness because there was a whole civilization of people already living here, but whatever) and those people I just mentioned, the ones who were already here, are kicking the shit out of us for some completely unfathomable reason. We are so super thankful [heavy sigh] not only because we know that it’s an awesome character building exercise for us to have to put up with your bullshit, and also for all the times the people who were already living here could have kicked the shit out of us but didn’t, for some reason we choose to ascribe to your being ever-so-much-more on our side than theirs. Yay! Fuck it! You rock, God!”
But really, the whole point of Thanksgiving (at least the modern Thanksgiving in which we aren’t bitching at God about Heathen Natives) is food. The traditional dishes haven’t changed all that much. Here’s a suggested Thanksgiving menu from the San Francisco Call in 1910, which could just as easily have been printed in the San Francisco Chronicle in 2012 (except you’d have sprinkle in a few instances of “Heritage,” “Organic,” and “Deep Fried.”)
“A menu suited to the home dinner is: cream of corn soup, roast turkey, cranberry jelly, oyster pie, sweet potato balls, creamed and baked onions, Spanish rice, pumpkin pies, fruits, nuts, coffee.”
OK, I’ll admit, I have no idea where the Spanish rice came from. But it is the San Francisco treat, I am reliably informed. My point is, the menus really haven’t changed all that much. The family would have eaten, then retired to gather around the piano, or perhaps even the Victrola if they happened to be early adopters of new technology. The youngsters in the house might have gone off to a dance (the whole country was mad for dances) and the weary elders would probably have settled down read the evening newspapers. In those papers, they would find reprinted President Taft’s Thanksgiving proclamation, a Presidential tradition since George Washington. (Note that another popular Presidential tradition, the “pardon” of the Thanksgiving turkey is more recent; it is said to have originated in 1947 with President Truman.)
“We continue to be at peace with the rest of the world. In all essential matters our relations with other people are harmonious, with an ever-growing reality of friendliness and depth of recognition of mutual dependence. It is especially to be noted that during the last year great progress has been achieved in the cause of arbitration and the peaceful settlement of international disputes.”
Don’t you just wish we could say the same in 2012? Having congratulated himself and the nation on all that peaceful settlement-ing, Taft then proceeded to sit his 300-pound-self down to a feast. As one might imagine, Taft knew how to feast. In 1909, his Thanksgiving bounty had included:
“… a huge Vose turkey, a 50-pound mince pie, and a 26-pound Georgia possum—one of the president’s favorite dishes. The New York Times reported he once ordered a possum that was still alive on the platter, where it snarled and gave Taft a bothersome ‘reproachful look.'”
And going on the principle that one just can’t get enough ‘possum, it was was once again to be found on the White House menu in 1910:
Taft’s Thanksgiving turkeys competed for attention on his holiday tables with chubby Georgia possums, each with a potato stuffed in its mouth. Taft was a Cincinnatian by birth but a Southerner in his tastes, the newspaper accounts of the day noted. His Thanksgiving meal in 1910, thusly, was prepared by three cooks, “all Negro women, the very best of southern culinary artists,” the Detroit Free-Press observed.
A few years later, in fall of 1916, the post-Thanksgiving dinner evening newspapers would have been full of very different stories. The war in Europe had been raging for two years. In January of 1917, Germany would announce the resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare, which would virtually assure America’s entry into the Great War. As a result, President Wilson (who had just that year been reelected on the slogan “He Kept Us Out of War”) issued a Thanksgiving proclamation markedly different in tone from the one Taft had given just six years earlier:
The year that has elapsed since we last observed our day of thanksgiving has been rich in blessings to us as a people, but the whole face of the world has been darkened by war. In the midst of our peace and happiness, our thoughts dwell with painful disquiet upon the struggles and sufferings of the nations at war and of the peoples upon whom war has brought disaster without choice or possibility of escape on their part. We cannot think of our own happiness without thinking also of their pitiful distress.
Now, Therefore, I, Woodrow Wilson, President of the United States of America, do appoint Thursday, the thirtieth of November, as a day of National Thanksgiving and Prayer, and urge and advise the people to resort to their several places of worship on that day to render thanks to Almighty God for the blessings of peace and unbroken prosperity which He has bestowed upon our beloved country in such unstinted measure. And I also urge and suggest our duty in this our day of peace and abundance to think in deep sympathy of the stricken peoples of the world upon whom the curse and terror of war has so pitilessly fallen, and to contribute out of our abundant means to the relief of their suffering …
I jump forward to 1916 mostly because I want to share the story of a very interesting Thanksgiving had by 46 members of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) in Washington State. Having been arrested in North Yakima during a large street meeting intended to persuade apple pickers to ask for a better wage, they were taken to the decrepit Yakima City Jail, which was crawling with lice. The incarcerated men, apparently believers in due process, first voted to condemn the jail before proceeding to demolish it from the inside out.
In response, a vigilante squad composed of 200 local businessmen armed themselves with pick and ax handles, and marched in a body to the city jail. They herded the strikers (who all were soaking wet, having gotten the business end of the local firefighters’ hoses) through the freezing winter cold to the train depot. At the depot they forced the strikers into two refrigerated railcars and ordered the train crew to remove them from town. The train crew refused.
The impasse was ultimately solved when a representative of the State Labor Council, Edward Maurer, noted that if the IWW were prevented from organizing, then other unions (those he represented, for example) wouldn’t be able to organize either. And so, Wobbly organizing among agricultural laborers continued in the Yakima valley, with a fair amount of success, though the one big union never obtained control of area industry.
But the end of the story for the 46 strikers was that the IWW hall, which had been closed by police, reopened in time for a Thanksgiving Day feast to be served. The repast included Direct Action Duck, Chicken a la Sabotage, Rebel Cranberries, and Liber-Tea.
Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!