Our Great National Feast of Thanksgiving

"A Thanksgiving Toast." Undated holiday card (likely early twentieth century).

“A Thanksgiving Toast.” Undated holiday card (likely early twentieth century).

Thanksgiving is upon us once again. Hard to believe this is my third annual Thankgiving post. I want to start off with a heartfelt, “Thank you!” to all those who attended my recent talk. I was surprised and gratified by how many people attended, and by the kind comments of all who took a moment to speak with me after the program. You have inspired me to get back to work!

Often, when we read about the history of the American Thanksgiving holiday, the year that is offered as the “first” official Thanksgiving (after 1620 in Plymouth, of course) is 1863. We have all heard the story of how President Abraham Lincoln, at least partly in response to a twenty-year-long campaign by author and magazine editor Sarah Josepha Hale, proclaimed a federal holiday of thanks for recent Union victories including the battles of Gettysburg and Vicksburg. What is less often noted, however, is that for decades prior, Thanksgiving had been proclaimed as an annual holiday by the governors of America’s individual states. In 1847, for example, twenty-four of the twenty-nine states celebrated on the last Thursday in November. Thanksgiving was by no means a novel concept in 1863.

The Lorain County News, which was Wellington’s only local newspaper at the time of the Civil War, commented on November 25, 1863 that Thanksgiving was “a venerable day of family reunions, joyous meetings and congratulations, tender reminiscences and emotions, praise and prayer.” The paper reflected on how especially sad this particular Thanksgiving would be in light of the year’s massive loss of human life, but added, “In all the past visitations of this joyous anniversary we have never had greater occasion than now for hearts full to overflowing with gratitude…since last thanksgiving [sic] day the rich prospect has dawned upon us of a redeemed nation, a people loyal and true to the government and a proclamation of freedom to millions of human beings” (pg. 2).

On that federally-appointed Thanksgiving of 1863, all Wellington businesses were closed and the village joined as one for a single religious observance at the Congregational Church in the morning, followed in the evening by a “well-attended thanksgiving [sic] prayer meeting at the M.E. Church.” The townsfolk had previously subscribed $50 to provide Thanksgiving food to soldiers’ families. Each of the twelve that had a young man at the front received “a good wheelbarrow load of edibles” including flour, potatoes, sugar, tea, crackers, beef, and “a pair of dressed chickens.” This admirable donation was valued at more than $4 per family. In addition, Rev. Mrs. Shipherd spearheaded the collection of “greatly needed articles” that had already been forwarded “to the suffering contrabands, the freedmen, women and children of the South” (LCN, 12-2-1863, pg. 3).

A very joyous holiday to you all. May we count our blessings and be truly grateful all the year ’round.

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