Southerners Come Late to Thanksgiving
Today’s Southerners look forward to the traditional fall gathering of family and friends for Thanksgiving dinner. Countless magazines and websites feature the specialty dishes for inclusion in the perfect Southern holiday meal.
But, it has not always been this way. Southerners came late to the table. So, the true Southern Thanksgiving meal would have been a spartan affair for most of the 19th century. Thanksgiving was considered a “Yankee holiday,” with its origins in Massachusetts (Plymouth, 1621), although Jamestown claimed the first such celebration in 1619.
Throughout the rest of the 17th century, and into the 18th century, the Thanksgiving dinner tradition traveled with early pioneers — first to New England and then, as settlers moved westward, Thanksgiving traditions went with them. By the 1840s, Thanksgiving was celebrated widely across the Northeast and Midwest.
But, there was no set date for Thanksgiving Day, and each state’s governor, by proclamation, would set the date. Usually, a Thursday in late November or December was chosen. However, others chose a Saturday that might range from September to January.
By the middle of the 19th century, there developed a movement to make Thanksgiving a national holiday, and it was championed by Sarah Josepha Hale, editor of Godey’s Lady’s Book, one of the country’s most circulated magazines. Her November issue featured thanksgiving stories and poems, as well as detailed instructions for stuffing turkeys and making mincemeat pies. Additionally, Hale penned passionate editorials advocating the national holiday, specifically the last Thursday in November.
Hale’s vision finally was realized when President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed a nationwide Thanksgiving Day to occur on the last Thursday of November of 1863. He made a similar proclamation the next year, with all subsequent presidents following his precedent. However, it was not until 1939 that President Franklin Delano Roosevelt moved the holiday to the fourth Thursday of November, and thought to ensure retailers had more pre-Christmas shopping days.
By the prosperous post-World War II years, Thanksgiving was widely celebrated in all regions with Southerners fully at the table. Over time, Southern families added their own Thanksgiving traditions. The New England staples of roast turkey and cranberry sauce with mashed potatoes still reigned supreme, but bread stuffing became cornbread dressing at Southern tables. Pies of pumpkin and mincemeat might be replaced by pecan or sweet potato pie. Gravy, biscuits and collard greens frequently are found on the holiday table, along with sweet potatoes and corn pudding. The holiday table might even include Southern macaroni and cheese casserole.
– Abbie Parks, an Acworth resident, co-authored pictorial essays on regional history and collaborated on a book celebrating Acworth’s 150th birthday.