Thanksgiving: The Holiday at the Heart of the American Experience

The History of the American Tradition

(GMVozd/Getty Images)
(GMVozd/Getty Images)

A compendium of Melanie Kirkpatrick's writings on the American holiday.

After the Election, a Thanksgiving to Unite Us

Election Day has come and gone, and after one of the most divisive campaigns in memory, “healing” seems to be the word of the hour. What better time to begin than Thanksgiving, which Benjamin Franklin called a day of “public Felicity” to give thanks for our “full enjoyment of Liberty, civil and religious.” Thanksgiving, our nation’s oldest tradition, is a moment to focus on our blessings as Americans, on what unites us, not on what divides us.

Such was the case in 1863, when Abraham Lincoln called for a national Thanksgiving celebration. He did so at the urging of a farsighted magazine editor who believed that a Thanksgiving celebration would have a “deep moral influence” on the American character, helping to bring together the country, which was divided over the issue of slavery. Lincoln’s 1863 proclamation was the first in the unbroken string of annual Thanksgiving proclamations by every subsequent president. It is regarded as the beginning of our modern Thanksgiving holiday.

Lincoln’s call for a national Thanksgiving was different from the thanksgivings he or Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy, had called in the early years of the Civil War to express gratitude to God for specific Union or Confederate military victories. Rather, in 1863 Lincoln asked Americans to give thanks for the nation’s general blessings. It was the first time since George Washington led the country that a president proclaimed a day of general Thanksgiving.

The opening sentence of Lincoln’s proclamation set the tone: “The year that is drawing toward its close has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies,” he wrote. This was an astonishing way to characterize the year 1863, when death, suffering and grief were ever present. At the Battle of Gettysburg, which had taken place in July, the Union lost 27% of its fighting men and the Confederacy lost 37%.

Yet amid this human suffering, Lincoln cataloged the blessings for which Americans could be grateful. Even “in the midst of a civil war of unequaled magnitude and severity,” he wrote, the nation remained at peace with foreign countries, its borders were expanding, its population was growing, and its farms, industries and mines were producing.

Lincoln spoke not as commander in chief of the Union forces but as president of the entire nation, North and South. He made no reference to victories or losses or rebels or enemies. Instead, the president spoke of “the whole American people.” He called on every American to celebrate Thanksgiving “with one heart and one voice.”

To understand how Lincoln came to believe in the healing power of a national Thanksgiving, it is necessary to examine the remarkable life of the woman who made it happen. She used her position as editor of the most popular magazine of the pre-Civil War era to conduct a decadeslong campaign for a countrywide Thanksgiving holiday. She is often called the godmother of Thanksgiving. Her name was Sarah Josepha Hale.

Hale’s story is a classic American saga of how one enterprising, hardworking individual with a good idea can have an impact in an open, democratic society. In this case, a penniless young widow from New Hampshire—subject to all the limitations attached to such a station in life in the early 19th century—rose to become the editor of the most widely circulated magazine of her era, Godey’s Lady’s Book.

As editor—or “editress,” as she preferred to be addressed—Hale set out to publish American authors writing on American themes. This approach contrasted with that of other magazines of the day, which typically reprinted articles pirated from English publications. Hale lined up American writers such as Harriet Beecher Stowe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Washington Irving and Edgar Allan Poe. Her interest in culture extended to everyday aspects of American life—food, fashion, manners, child rearing and running a household.

Thanksgiving Day, a homegrown holiday, fit into Hale’s mission of focusing on Americana. She saw it as a patriotic occasion along with the Fourth of July and Washington’s Birthday. Thanks in part to Hale’s campaign, by the time the Civil War began nearly every state marked its own Thanksgiving Day on dates ranging from September to December. Her goal was to have it established as a national holiday and observed on a uniform date throughout the country. George Washington had selected the last Thursday in November as the date of the first national Thanksgiving in 1789, so that was the date she chose.

Hale helped consolidate popular support for a national Thanksgiving by publishing editorials making the case for the holiday, fiction and poems set around Thanksgiving Day, and recipes for traditional Thanksgiving dishes such as roast turkey and pumpkin pie. Her hope wasn’t simply to see Americans feast on the same foods on the same day, but she was shrewd enough to realize that the culinary appeal of Thanksgiving was another selling point for her vision of a shared celebration.

Meanwhile, she conducted a letter-writing campaign, soliciting support for her project from presidents, governors, congressmen and other influential Americans. On Sept. 28, 1863, Hale sent a letter to Lincoln. The subject she wished to lay out before the president, she wrote, “is to have the day of our annual Thanksgiving made a National and fixed Union Festival.” The editor asked the president to “appeal to the Governors of all the States” to follow suit. “Thus the great Union Festival of America would be established.” The result, as we know, was Lincoln’s decision to declare a national day of Thanksgiving.

In his 1863 proclamation, Lincoln reminded Americans that the Civil War would eventually end. He asked them to look beyond the current horrors to a better day, when the country “is permitted to expect continuance of years with large increase of freedom.”

Lincoln’s Thanksgiving proclamation was profoundly hopeful, reminding the American people of the nation’s capacity for renewal. It’s a message that resonates today.

A Uniquely American Holiday: Thanksgiving

Just about every country has a national day, a holiday when citizens stop to honor their constitution, celebrate a monarch’s birthday, recall the day their nation was liberated from colonial rule, or otherwise pay tribute to their country’s origins. The United States isn’t unique in celebrating a day of independence.

But Thanksgiving is something else. Only a few countries set aside a day of national thanksgiving. Most of these holidays trace their origins back to a time when life beat to the rhythm of the agricultural cycle.

Koreans celebrate the harvest festival of Chuseok with family gatherings and visits to their ancestral homes. Similarly, China’s Mid-Autumn or Moon Festival is a modernized version of long-ago harvest celebrations. Germany has Erntedankfest, when churches are decorated with symbols of the harvest.

The first thanksgivings in Canada were religious ceremonies celebrated by English and French explorers, but the modern Canadian Thanksgiving Day owes a debt to the American Loyalists who carried the New England custom with them when they fled to Nova Scotia at the time of the Revolutionary War.

Brazil’s Thanksgiving Day, which debuted in 1949, was the brainchild of that country’s ambassador to the United States, who admired the American holiday. These and other thanksgivings are joyous occasions, but they say little about what it means to be Korean or Chinese, German, Canadian, or Brazilian.

In contrast, the American Thanksgiving is far more than an update of an ancient harvest festival. Thanksgiving has grown up with the country. It reflects our national identity as a grateful, generous, and inclusive people.

When a 21st-century American takes his place at the Thanksgiving table or volunteers at a local food bank, he is part of a continuum that dates back to 1621, when the Pilgrims and the Indians shared their famous three-day feast.

As this book has recounted, the most direct influence on the development of the holiday was the religious days of thanksgiving marked in all of the American colonies. By the turn of the 18th century, the after-church Thanksgiving meal had taken on an identity of its own in New England, and the holiday emerged as a time for homecomings, feasting, and hospitality, in addition to the religious aspects.

The Pilgrims weren’t associated with Thanksgiving until the 19th century, after the establishment of the now mostly forgotten holiday of Forefathers Day and the emergence of the Pilgrims as icons of liberty and the forerunners of the Founding Fathers.

The story of how Thanksgiving became a national holiday is itself a classic American saga of how one enterprising, hardworking individual with a good idea can have an impact in an open, democratic society.

In this case, a penniless young widow—subject to all the limitations attached to such a station in life in the early 19th century—rose to become the editor of the most popular magazine of her era. Sarah Josepha Hale used her position to generate grassroots support for her campaign for a national Thanksgiving, and she petitioned the most powerful men in the land to turn her vision into a reality.

In the political realm, Thanksgiving has sparked debates about core aspects of American liberty. In 1789, George Washington’s call for a national Thanksgiving ignited controversy when some members of Congress believed that the new president was exercising a power that rightly belonged to the individual states.

Other opponents said the Thanksgiving proposal violated the guarantee of a separation of church and state found in the First Amendment, which Congress had just debated.

In the 1930s, Franklin Roosevelt’s decision to change the date of Thanksgiving set off a revolt in statehouses over presidential authority, with the result that half the country celebrated on one day and half on another.

We live in a less religious age than did the Pilgrims or Washington or Hale, but it would be a mistake to claim, as some do, that Thanksgiving is not a religious holiday. It is that rarest of religious holidays, one that all religions can, and do, celebrate.

For this, as in so many other things, the nation can thank Washington, who declared our first Thanksgiving as a nation in a proclamation that embraced people of all faiths. The Pilgrims came to our shores seeking religious freedom. On Thanksgiving Day, Americans of all faiths—and of none—can give thanks that they found it.

Thanksgiving and America

One Fourth of July in the 1980s, when I was living in Hong Kong, I read a tidbit in a local newspaper about America’s Independence Day. Across the United States today, the columnist declared, families are celebrating the birth of their nation by sitting down to turkey dinners with all the trimmings.

The expatriate American community in what was then a British colony shared a chuckle over the columnist’s confusion about America’s national holidays. But it also set me to thinking. In some sense, the error was a natural one. A non-American could be forgiven for conflating these two home-grown American holidays. Both bind celebrants to the larger history of our nation.

Thanksgiving isn’t a patriotic holiday per se, but it is full of patriotic feeling as Americans give thanks for our shared blessings as a nation. The best expression of this aspect of Thanksgiving comes from Benjamin Franklin, who called it a day “of public Felicity,” a time to express gratitude to God for the “full Enjoyment of Liberty, civil and religious.”

Just about every country has a national day — a holiday when citizens stop to honor their constitution or celebrate a monarch’s birthday or recall their day of liberation from colonial rule. The United States isn’t unique in celebrating its Independence Day. But Thanksgiving is something else. Only a few other countries set aside a day of thanksgiving. Most of these are harvest festivals, celebrations that trace their origins back to when life beat to the rhythm of the agricultural cycle.

America’s Thanksgiving holiday is something different. We live in a less religious age than did the Pilgrims. But it would be a mistake to claim, as some do, that Thanksgiving is not religious. It is that rarest of religious holidays, one that all religions can celebrate. The Pilgrims came to our shores seeking freedom to worship as they pleased. On Thanksgiving, Americans of all faiths — and of none — can give thanks that they found it.

Thanksgiving has grown up with the country. Many of our greatest historical figures are associated with it: George Washington, who proclaimed our first national Thanksgiving amid controversy over his constitutional power to do so — and who included in his proclamation Americans of every faith; Abraham Lincoln, who wanted to heal a war-torn nation when he called for all Americans, North and South, to mark the same day of Thanksgiving; and Franklin Roosevelt, who set off a national debate when he changed the holiday’s traditional date.

Ordinary Americans played their part too: Sarah Josepha Hale, the 19th-century magazine editor who campaigned to make Thanksgiving a national holiday; the New England Indians who boycotted Thanksgiving in the 1970s, calling it a day of mourning; and the 92nd Street Y in New York City, which recently launched Giving Tuesday, following in the long American tradition of remembering the poor and needy around Thanksgiving.

Thanksgiving says a lot about Americans. It reflects our national identity as a grateful, generous, and inclusive people. When an American takes his place at the Thanksgiving table or volunteers at a local food bank he is part of a continuum that dates back to 1621, when the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag Indians sat together for three days to share food and fellowship. The friendly coexistence between the English settlers and the Native Americans would last only a few decades longer. But that original Thanksgiving pointed the way to the diverse people we have become.

Many aspects of the holiday are of interest, including the days of thanksgiving in Florida, Texas, and Virginia that predate the more familiar one in Plymouth and compete for the title of “first”; a now almost forgotten holiday called Forefathers Day, which influenced the modern Thanksgiving; the way in which football became part of our Thanksgiving rituals; and, of course, how it came to pass that on the fourth Thursday in November most Americans sit down to the same meal of turkey, cranberries, potatoes, and pie.

What I want to emphasize, though, is the aspect of the holiday that Ben Franklin particularly admired: that it is a time for expressing gratitude for the “full Enjoyment of Liberty, civil and religious.” In doing so, I’ll give an illustration from each of the centuries since America’s original Thanksgiving, from the 17th to the 21st.

There are two eyewitness accounts of the first Thanksgiving, written by Pilgrims William Bradford and Edward Winslow — although I should stipulate that the word “thanksgiving” does not appear in them. If you could travel back to 1621 and ask a Pilgrim to define “Thanksgiving Day,” his answer might surprise you. For the Pilgrims, “days of thanksgiving” were not marked by feasting, family, and fellowship — the happy hallmarks of the holiday we now celebrate — but by religious observance. They were called to express gratitude to God for specific beneficences such as successful harvests, propitious weather, or military victories. For the Pilgrims and other early immigrants to our shores, a “thanksgiving day” was set aside for prayer and worship.

From the Pilgrims’ perspective, their first Thanksgiving in New England took place two years after the event we recall as the first. It was July 1623, and the governor declared a day of thanksgiving in gratitude for rainfall that had saved their harvest. These religious days, observed in all 13 colonies, were the most direct influence on the development of Thanksgiving as we celebrate it today.

At some point in the 1600s, each New England colony began to designate annual thanksgiving days, usually in the autumn. These celebrations were deemed “general” thanksgivings — that is, they weren’t called for a specific event or blessing, but for ordinary, everyday blessings. And they were usually designated by civil authorities rather than religious ones.

Connecticut was the first colony to name a specific day of general thanksgiving — September 18, 1639 — and make it an annual event. This decision was controversial and the subject of spirited theological debates. Opponents argued that an annual thanksgiving for general reasons would lead people to take God’s generosity for granted. But the idea caught on. Massachusetts was the last holdout, not following Connecticut’s lead until late in the 17th century.

Moving to the 18th century, the story of the political controversy surrounding our first Thanksgiving as a nation speaks volumes about our civil and religious freedoms.

The controversy began on September 25, 1789, in New York City, then the seat of our federal government. The venue was the inaugural session of Congress. The senators and representatives had been meeting since March 4 at Federal Hall in lower Manhattan and were about to take a well-deserved break when Representative Elias Boudinot of New Jersey rose to introduce a resolution. He asked the House to create a joint committee with the Senate to “wait upon the President of the United States, to request that he would recommend to the people of the United States a day of public thanksgiving and prayer.” Boudinot made special reference to the Constitution, which had been ratified in 1788. A day of public thanksgiving, he believed, would allow Americans to express gratitude to God for the “opportunity peaceably to establish a Constitution of government for their safety and happiness.”

This resolution sparked a vigorous debate. There were two objections. The first concerned federalism. A congressman from South Carolina argued that the federal government did not have the authority to proclaim days of thanksgiving; that was among the powers left to individual state governments. “Why should the President direct the people to do what, perhaps, they have no mind to do?” he asked. “If a day of thanksgiving must take place, let it be done by the authority of the several States.”

The South Carolinian’s second objection was that proclaiming a day of thanksgiving “is a religious matter, and, as such, is proscribed to us.” The Bill of Rights would not be ratified until 1791, but Congress had just approved the wording of the First Amendment, and the debate about the proper role of religion was fresh in everyone’s mind.

In the end, the resolution passed. It moved to the Senate, which quickly approved it, and on October 3, President Washington issued his now-famous Thanksgiving Proclamation. He designated Thursday, November 26, 1789, as “a day of public thanksgiving and prayer.” He did not decree a Thanksgiving. Rather, cognizant of the limits of his power, he asked that the governors of the 13 states comply with his request. He also made it clear that Thanksgiving was an inclusive holiday — not just for Christians but for Americans of every faith.

The next president to designate a day of national thanksgiving for general blessings was Lincoln in 1863. That’s not to say Americans did not celebrate Thanksgiving during the intervening years. They did. By the time of the Civil War, just about every state had established an annual day of thanksgiving. The holiday was celebrated by a day off from work, attendance at religious services, and, usually, a festive family gathering. The date was set by the individual governors, who sometimes coordinated but usually didn’t. The result was that while most states celebrated in November, a few marked the day in October or early December.

The story of how Thanksgiving became a regular national holiday is itself a classic American story of how an enterprising individual with a good idea can have an impact. In this case, a penniless young widow from New Hampshire, Sarah Josepha Hale, rose to become the editor of the most popular magazine of her era, Godey’s Lady’s Book, and used that position to generate grassroots support for a national Thanksgiving.

Mrs. Hale’s genius as an editor was to focus on American topics and American authors at a time when other magazines typically reprinted articles pirated from English publications. She used every feature of her magazine — editorials, short stories, recipes — to encourage the celebration of Thanksgiving. At the same time, she conducted a letter-writing campaign to presidents, governors, congressmen, and other influential figures.

In 1863 — in the midst of what is arguably the bloodiest year in American history — Lincoln, inspired by a letter from Mrs. Hale, took the extraordinary step of naming a national day of thanksgiving. He called on every American, North and South, to celebrate Thanksgiving “with one heart and one voice.” Following Washington’s example, he set Thanksgiving for the last Thursday of November. Lincoln’s 1863 proclamation was the first in an unbroken string of annual Thanksgiving proclamations by every subsequent president up to the present day. It is regarded as the beginning of our national Thanksgiving holiday.

But there remained a snag. While the overwhelming majority of governors went along in their state proclamations with the dates that Lincoln and later presidents designated, they were under no obligation to do so. The president’s proclamation had no force of law outside the District of Columbia and U.S. territories. That would require an act of Congress. For that, the country would have to wait until 1941.

In August 1939, FDR announced that he had decided to move Thanks­giving back a week — from what had by then become the traditional last Thursday of the month. The country was still in the midst of the Great Depression, and Roosevelt’s reasoning was economic. There were five Thursdays in November that year, which meant that Thanksgiving, if celebrated on the last, would fall on the 30th and leave only 20 shopping days till Christmas. Moving the holiday to November 23 would allow Americans more time to shop and — so the President’s dubious theory went — spend more money, thus lifting the economy.

Roosevelt, usually an astute politician, made the mistake at a press conference of saying there was “nothing sacred” about the date of Thanksgiving. He might as well have suggested that roast beef replace turkey as the star of the holiday meal. His announcement was front-page news the next day, and the public outcry was swift and vociferous.

“We here in Plymouth [Massachusetts] consider the day sacred,” the town’s first selectman said. “Plymouth and Thanksgiving are almost synonymous, and merchants or no merchants I can’t see any reason for changing it.” College football coaches were apoplectic, since most colleges scheduled their football seasons, which ended on Thanksgiving weekend, well in advance. Alf Landon, FDR’s Republican opponent in 1936, compared the President to Hitler.

The date of Thanksgiving in 1939 became a political hot potato. Politicians in every state had to read public opinion, examine the local business climate, and consider political loyalties before deciding which date to endorse. In the end, 23 states chose to stick with November 30, while 22 celebrated on November 23. Three states — Texas, Mississippi, and Colorado — decided to celebrate on both days.

It wasn’t long before people started referring to November 30 as the “Republican Thanksgiving” and November 23 as the “Democratic Thanksgiving” (or as some had it, “Franksgiving”). Senator Styles Bridges of New Hampshire asked sarcastically: “Has the President given any thought to abolishing winter?”

In 1941, President Roosevelt admitted defeat and declared that Thanksgiving would return to its traditional date. Congress passed legislation fixing the date of all future Thanksgivings as the fourth Thursday of November and FDR signed it into law.

In conclusion, I’d like to recount a personal story that gives special meaning to Ben Franklin’s characterization of Thanksgiving.

While researching my book, I met with teenagers attending Newcomer’s High School, a high school for immigrants in the borough of Queens in New York City. I led discussions in three classes about the Thanksgiving holiday, which most of the students were about to celebrate for the first time.

These high schoolers had a personal understanding of the Thanksgiving story. For them, the Pilgrim story was their story, and the Pilgrim fathers and mothers were historical reflections of themselves. The Pilgrims had been divided into two groups: those who came to the New World seeking religious freedom and those who came here seeking better lives. The same was true for these students.

A girl from Ivory Coast explained how her father had worked as a houseboy in the old country. Now, she proudly told me, he has a job with the Metropolitan Transit Authority. “My dad came here to have a better life,” she said.

A boy from Tibet, a country that hasn’t formally existed since China annexed it in 1950, explained that his family couldn’t practice the Buddhism of the Dalai Lama in China. But here in America they could do so without fear.

Talking to these students, I was reminded of the words of the late historian Samuel Eliot Morison, who called the Pilgrims “the spiritual ancestors of all Americans, whatever their stock, race, or creed.”

Shades of the Pilgrims and the Wampa­noag Indians sit at every American’s Thanksgiving table, along with those of Washington, Lincoln, Sarah Josepha Hale, and others who have enriched our Thanksgiving tradition and helped to knit us together as a nation. This history, and more, is worthy of our remembrance, with grateful hearts, on every Thanksgiving Day — including this one.

How Thanksgiving Went from a Day of Prayer to a Day of Feasting

If you could travel back in time to 1621, tap a Pilgrim on the shoulder, and ask him to define “Thanksgiving Day,” his answer might surprise you. For the Pilgrims, a “day of thanksgiving” was not marked by feasting, family, and fellowship — the happy hallmarks of the holiday we now celebrate. It was a different matter altogether. A “thanksgiving day” was set aside for prayer and worship.

Saying Grace by Norman Rockwell, 1951, Oil on canvasThe Pilgrims brought with them from England the religious custom of marking days of thanksgiving. Days of thanksgiving were called in response to specific beneficences such as a successful harvest, propitious weather, or a military victory. From the Pilgrims’ perspective, their First Thanksgiving in the New World didn’t take place until 1623, two years after they and the Wampanoag Indians sat down together at the now-famous feast. The occasion was a rainfall that saved their harvest — and their lives. If the harvest had failed, famine was sure to follow and the settlement of Plymouth might not have survived.

All the New England colonies followed the custom of designating days of public thanksgiving. At some point in the 1600s, the colonies began to designate annual thanksgiving days, usually in the autumn, around the time of the harvest. These celebrations were deemed “general” thanksgivings for ordinary, everyday blessings. They were usually called by civil, not religious, authorities.

In 1639, Connecticut was the first to make Thanksgiving an annual event. It is impossible to know precisely when the feasting and family aspects of Thanksgiving Day began to overtake the religious ones, but they had caught on by the the end of the 17th century. Churches accommodated the custom of a feast by eliminating the afternoon service. Soon Thanksgiving dinner was nearly as important as morning prayer.

The Turkey Pardoning Tradition May Have Started with a Raccoon

In 1873, Henry Vose, the so-called poultry king of Rhode Island, began to supply Thanksgiving turkeys to the White House, the start of a 40-year tradition. The first president to receive one of Vose’s renowned fowls was Ulysses S. Grant. The tradition continued until Vose’s death in 1913, when Woodrow Wilson was president.

Subsequent presidents continued to receive turkeys as gifts. In the early 1920s, a Chicago girls club sent Warren Harding a prize turkey that they had fattened up on chocolates. Harding’s successor, Calvin Coolidge, received turkeys, quail, ducks, geese, rabbits and a deer.

The Coolidge family were the recipients, too, of the oddest gift intended for a First Family’s Thanksgiving dinner. In 1926, a raccoon arrived at the White House from Mississippi along with the sender’s assurances that the animal had a “toothsome flavor.” The Coolidges declined to eat the Thanksgiving raccoon and instead turned it into a pet, which they named Rebecca.

If the president of the United States could pardon a raccoon, why not a turkey? The origin of the presidential pardon of a Thanksgiving turkey, now an annual ceremony on the White House lawn, is something of a mystery. Some trace it back to Lincoln, who is said to have issued a reprieve to a turkey named Jack that had been earmarked for Christmas dinner. When young Tad Lincoln objected, the president let Jack live.

The late 1940s saw the beginning of the National Thanksgiving Turkey Presentation ceremony, in which the National Turkey Federation or another industry group donates a Thanksgiving turkey to the White House — and not so incidentally provides a nice holiday photo-op for the president. At first, the president would occasionally pardon the bird, but it wasn’t until George H. W. Bush became president that the turkey pardon turned into an annual event. Bush granted the pardon as animal rights activists were picketing nearby.

A Football Feast

Every Princetonian worth his or her Tiger stripes knows that Princeton played Rutgers in the first intercollegiate football game. The match took place Nov. 6, 1869, in New Brunswick, N.J. — Princeton lost.

Less known is the role that Princeton played in creating the winning tradition of Thanksgiving Day football, a tradition that is still going strong. In 1876, Princeton and Yale faced off in the intercollegiate championship game on Thanksgiving Day in Hoboken, N.J. The game moved to New York City a few years later.

The Princeton-Yale Thanksgiving Day game quickly became immensely popular. Richard Harding Davis, writing in Harper’s Weekly, said it didn’t matter whether New Yorkers could tell “a touchdown from a three-base hit.” They knew that “the Yales” and “the Princetons” were going to fight it out in New York, and they wanted to join in the fun even if they couldn’t afford to buy a ticket to the game.

As Thanksgiving Day approached, football mania took hold of the city. Churches moved the time of their Thanksgiving services up an hour to accommodate game-goers and fans; pastors didn’t want to risk preaching their Thanksgiving Day sermons to empty pews. At 10 a.m., a procession of horse-drawn carriages, omnibuses, and other vehicles — all decorated in the college colors — lined up on Fifth Avenue. As the caravan began its journey uptown to Manhattan Field in the Polo Grounds in Harlem, it passed sidewalks lined three or four deep with well-wishers shouting “rifle-like” cheers for Yale and “hissing sky-rocket” yells for Princeton, as Davis described it. The wealthy hung huge silk banners displaying gigantic Y’s or P’s outside their mansions, while the poor waved strips of colored cloth out their apartment windows.

Not everyone approved of Thanksgiving Day football. Even Davis, who had described the festivities with apparent delight in Harper’s Weekly, believed that New Yorkers’ obsession with football obscured the significance of the day. The holiday had become centered on “twenty-two very dirty and very earnest young men who are trying to force a leather ball over a whitewashed line.”

But the Princeton-Yale game in New York City was a catalyst for the creation of a popular audience for Thanksgiving Day football. In 1893, according to one count, 120,000 athletes played in 5,000 Thanksgiving Day games across the country, demonstrating an enthusiasm for the sport that stretched far beyond the Ivy League.

That year the faculties of Princeton and Yale announced their disapproval of the Thanksgiving Day football game in New York. This was an age when educators believed they had a responsibility to guide the moral development of the students in their care as well as their intellectual advancement. The professors objected to the hoopla over the game, which they thought distracted students from their studies, and they were appalled at students’ excessive behavior during the postgame revelries, which inevitably provoked drunken brawls that ended with Princetonians and Yalies being hauled off to jail.

The college authorities decreed that future championship games would be played on campus, where they could keep a better eye on the collegians and crack down on any shenanigans.

How an NYC Football Game Started a Thanksgiving War

Thanksgiving Day football can trace its origins back to the 1880s and a hugely popular annual game between Princeton and Yale in New York City.

Most New Yorkers seemed to take part in the festivities, whether or not they had tickets to the game. On Thanksgiving morning, fans pinned rosettes to their overcoats — blue for Yale, orange and black for Princeton — and paraded up and down Broadway. Shopkeepers decorated windows in the school colors. The wealthy hung banners displaying gigantic Y’s or P’s outside their mansions, while others flew bits of colored cloth out the windows of their apartments. The festivities were a spectacle, but in the words of a writer for Harper’s Weekly, the game was also the “greatest sporting event . . . this country has to show.”

By the early 1890s, 5,000 or more football games were being played across the country on Thanksgiving Day, and it was the No. 1 athletic event of the season at many colleges.

But not all Americans approved of the game. As Thanksgiving football fever swept the nation, it provoked a backlash from those who thought the emphasis on the sport detracted from the more important religious and familial aspects of the holiday.

The “true” meaning of Thanksgiving was hotly discussed from pulpits, in the newspapers and around dinner tables. Was Thanksgiving football a pernicious influence? Was its popularity intruding on family get-togethers and obscuring the religious obligation to give thanks to God and remember the less fortunate?

In 1893, the New York Herald lamented that “No longer is the day one of thanksgiving to the Giver of all good. The kicker now is king and the people bow down to him.” That same year the faculties of Princeton and Yale, worried that football distracted students from their studies and upset about the postgame brawls, announced that they were moving the game back to campus, where they could better control the football-crazy students.

The Chicago Tribune in 1896 published commentary on the meaning of the holiday. Prominent Chicagoans were asked to weigh in on the appropriate balance to be struck between God, football and family.

One clergyman warned of the encroachment of athletics on a day that properly belonged to home and family. Another clergyman disagreed, saying there was nothing wrong with a “family walk or spin on a wheel, the merry outdoor game, or even [a] more exciting football contest.”

It fell to a local rabbi — an obvious football fan — to provide the most eloquent response on the proper role of football on Thanksgiving Day: “A good God will delight in a joyful, manly people and accept the shout of victory won in manly contest as a thanksgiving offering,” he said. “There is a time for everything: a time to pray and a time to play.”