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6 Dec
2015

Imagining Thanksgiving on the American Prairie

Photos ThanksgivingI think about my grandmother often since I am working on the revisions of my novel, a fictionalized version of her life and the life of my grandfather. As I did the genealogical research on my grandparents, I was reminded that she was born one 145 years ago just before Thanksgiving. So this a time for me to honor her birth as well as to be grateful for her inspiration.

This year I celebrated Thanksgiving in Ireland where a dear friend cooked us a delicious traditional Thanksgiving dinner. Ireland is a country that doesn’t celebrate this most American of holidays. Thinking of my grandmother, I wondered how she might have celebrated Thanksgiving and her birthday which would have often fallen on Thanksgiving Day. I have no clues from my own family traditions. My curiosity led me to explore some of the history of one of the most favorite of American holidays. Thanksgiving combines the ancient traditions of harvest festivals and the religious observances of the Puritans grateful and giving thanks for their survival after a year of sickness and scarcity.

We learn as children in school about the Pilgrim story of Thanksgiving. But I had no idea that earlier ceremonies by other British Colonists and Spanish explorers in North America occurred before the Plymouth celebration of 1621. Although Thanksgiving in the colonies became a regular event by the middle of the 17th century, the first national Thanksgiving was proclaimed in 1777 by the Continental Congress. The early Presidents continued to proclaim a national day of Thanksgivings but it was not an official holiday. In fact, by the middle of the 19th century Thanksgiving was limited to individual state observances and had evolved from the religious and civil day of commemoration and giving thanks to a family holiday of feasting. President Lincoln was convinced to declare a national holiday in 1863 in an effort to unite the war-torn country. Lincoln’s successors proclaimed a Thanksgiving Day each year. It became a fixed annual celebration in 1941 when Congress established the fourth Thursday of the month of November as Thanksgiving.

Imagining Thanksgiving

Old Thanksgiving images

Without any family stories or traditions, I turned to my imagination about how my grandparents might have celebrated Thanksgiving Day. Since it was not a firm national holiday and observed differently by state, my grandparents, as struggling homesteaders, might not have even celebrated Thanksgiving. Certainly after my grandfather died leaving my grandmother in dire and impoverished circumstances, her ability to provide an extravagant feast would have been very limited. Yet, the tradition of acknowledging God’s blessings and giving thanks would have been important to my grandmother as I remember her. I imagine that when the President of the United States did declare a day of Thanksgiving, which may or may not have been in November, that she probably commemorated the day. She may have cooked something special and I am convinced that she would ensure that she and her children offered a prayer of thanksgiving for the blessings in their lives. I also imagine that she ignored or discounted any celebration of her November birthday as too frivolous and extravagant.

What are Your Traditions?

Do you have inherited family traditions on Thanksgiving? What do you imagine your grandparents or great grandparents did to celebrate a day of family feasting or to express gratitude and give thanks in their faith on Thanksgiving Day? Please post your comments and share your stories below.

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