Friday, November 16, 2012

The modern celebration of Thanksgiving in the United States is generally traced back to a 1621 celebration in Plymouth, Massachusetts, recorded in the diary of the then-governor of Plymouth Colony, William Bradford. It was not until 1863 that Abraham Lincoln—in an effort to foster a sense of unity between the Northern and Southern states—attempted to standardize the celebration of Thanksgiving through a presidential proclamation (most states had already begun to celebrate the holiday on the last Thursday of November by the beginning of the 19th century). In 1941, federal legislation signed by Franklin D. Roosevelt officially declared the fourth Thursday of November as Thanksgiving Day.

Among the Annie Ware Winsor Allen Papers held at the Schlesinger Library is a folder titled “Thanksgiving Poems, 1863–1916,” the contents of which include what appears to be a book printed by the Riverside Press of Cambridge, Massachusetts, that documents the Thanksgiving celebrations of the Ware family from 1863 to 1908 (mainly occurring in Milton, Massachusetts). Consisting of unbound signatures with no title page and little publication information, the book may have been self-published by a family member. Contained within are brief descriptions of the family’s annual celebrations, as well as songs and poems written to absent family members lamenting their absence. 

The family’s 1863 gathering is documented (above), and included is a poem written by several family members to “Harriet and Charles, at Coffin Point, S.C.”  A stanza written by one family member recalls the tension that Lincoln attempted to ease in his proclamation that year:

 

You, in your southern island

So many miles away

Form easily a picture

Of your home Thanksgiving Day.

You see the little parlor

Of the dear familiar place;

You hear the well-known voices

Recall each well-loved face.

But we in vain endeavor,

By the aid our fancy gives,

To form some vivid image

Of the way a planter lives.

We know you have your “niggahs,”

Your cotton-field and fleas;

But in thoughts of your Thanksgiving

There seems no place for these.

 

The entry for the family’s 1876 celebration is very short and reads “Twenty-one in the family; all present; also Alice Cunningham. All dined in the library at a horse-shoe table.” Yet this entry also includes a witty poem entitled “The Turkey” (the first and last stanzas of which are included here).

 

Who killed the turkey?

“I,” said the host,

Looking pale as a ghost;

“I killed the turkey.”

 

Then all the folks fell to eating their dinners,

Without one sad thought for the turkey – the sinners!

With cranberry sauce, and every variety

Of vegetables good, they fed to satiety;

Without shedding a tear for the bird, who, when living,

Had looked forward himself to a happy Thanksgiving.

 

Entries (several of which are included here) continue through the years, providing notations on births, deaths, and marriages in the family. Also included are lists of entertainments the family enjoyed at their gatherings: writing poetry, playing games, performing plays, etc. All of this provides a fascinating and rare look at the celebration of the holiday over a number of years.