Previous Posts

Monday, November 19, 2018

The Curious Case of the Thanksgiving Date

Pilgrims with flat-topped hats adorned with fashionable gold buckles - Native Americans half-dressed and ready to shake hands with these newly-arrived white men- both groups sitting down at a perfectly dressed outdoor table to break bread. Those are the images that most people have of the beginnings of a holiday that now focuses on family and giving thanks for what fortunes we have.

This was only further enforced when we school children traced our little hands and fashioned the outline into turkeys. We then whipped out the Elmer’s glue and colorful construction paper to make headbands with limp “feathers” attached.

Oh, we all did it.

This isn’t very PC today, but we all wore those proud crowns topped with unfortunate stereotypes.

History tells us that the first Thanksgiving, an autumn harvest festival, occurred in the fall of 1621 among about 50 Pilgrims and around 90 Wampanoag Indians. But our history books in high school- and our teachers in grade school- really got the whole thing wrong. The real origin of Thanksgiving is up for interpretation.

Yes, what we credit with the first Thanksgiving was originally a three-day celebration attended by men. No, not families. Men. We think of Plymouth (correctly spelled “Plimoth”) and Pilgrims. We think of them inviting a Native American tribe to dine with them. And of course, we think of turkey, stuffing, gravy, and cranberries.

And pie. Lots of pie.

Truth be told, feasts of thanks celebrating the autumn harvest had been celebrated for centuries. There is even record that the Spaniards in North America held a small autumn feast well before these Pilgrims in Plimoth. That’s why Virginia, Texas, Florida and Maine affirm they are the birthplace of the “first” Thanksgiving.

"First Thanksgiving at Plymouth" by Jennie Augusta Brownscombe (1914)

Confusing, right?

What we do know is that these fresh-off-the-boat men in 1621 did dine with the Wampanoag Indians; the tribe even brought four deer to the celebration. We also do know that cranberries, native to New England, were served. But there is no evidence that turkey made it to the table.

No pie, guys. There was no pie. Pumpkin and squash were in the diet, but a traditional pumpkin pie wasn’t prepared nor had it really been created yet.

Unlike other holidays, the date of Thanksgiving moves on the calendar every year. And have you ever thought it odd that a nationally-declared holiday is on a Thursday? Just like the controversial birth of our Thanksgiving, the significance of the holiday and the date it is celebrated has morphed over the years.

The first “official” Thanksgiving holiday proclamation was declared by George Washington. He called for a “day of public thanksgiving and prayer” to be observed Thursday, Nov. 26, 1789. But the meaning of this date wasn’t attached to Pilgrims at all. Washington was simply wishing for Americans to pay homage to a fledgling nation after the Revolutionary War was won. And, at the time, Thanksgiving was more of a religious holiday than a turkey and gravy one.

It would take 75 years exactly for another national declaration of Thanksgiving to be added to the calendar. During this period of time, individual states and territories would decide when to designate a day of thanks. Sometimes this day of thanks didn’t even fall in November. For example, in 1857, Missouri’s governor Robert Stewart “fixed upon Thursday, the 31st day of December, as a day of Thanksgiving throughout the State of Missouri.”

Abraham Lincoln, Oct. 1863

To no surprise, the next time there was a national declaration of giving thanks on a specific date didn’t happen until our nation was at war again. After the victory at Gettysburg, President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed Oct. 3, 1863 that we “set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next as a day of thanksgiving.”  

The country was severed in half during the Civil War. Locally in the Kansas City area, the state line was a battleground between the North and South. Another battle less critical was brewing. In 1864, president of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis threw a curveball and appointed Wednesday, Nov. 16th as the day of “rebel thanksgiving.”

Jefferson Davis invited people of the Confederate states “to assemble on the day aforesaid, in their place of public worship . . . [and] that He restore peace to our beloved country, healing its bleeding wounds and securing to us the continued right of self-government and independence.” This put the Confederate turkey day the day before the date suggested by President Lincoln.

Liberty Tribune, Nov. 11, 1864
Somehow, this doesn’t surprise me at all.

Northern newspapers responded to the announcement of a rebel Thanksgiving with a stiff opinion of the makeshift holiday for the South. The Cleveland Daily Leader wrote, “We fear that Mr. Jefferson Davis has mistaken the inspiration of the devil for that from above, and mistakes the amount of strength and inspiration which yet animate the people of the South.”

Roosevelt on Thanksgiving
Courtesy of Library of Congress
It went on to suggest that the South “can then give thanks for the reelection of Abraham Lincoln.”


More confusion on the official date of Thanksgiving occurred in 1939. The Depression era had depleted the nation’s economy, and just like today, the sales during the holiday season was a make-or-break for many merchants.

Traditionally, the fourth Thursday in November was the default date across the country as appointed annually by the president since 1863; however, the fourth Thursday would land Thanksgiving Nov. 30, 1939.

The concern was that losing extra shopping days between turkey day and Christmas would be harmful to the economy. In response, President Theodore Roosevelt was pressured to issue a proclamation declaring the third Thursday the “official” Thanksgiving, moving the date to Nov. 23rd.

Kansas City Star, Oct. 31, 1893
The response nationwide was one of havoc and confusion. In addition, it threw a bombshell on football schedules set a year in advance. Locally, one tradition was in danger of being lost and had Missouri and Kansas up in arms- again.

Traditionally at the time, the University of Missouri and the University of Kansas played their rival football game on Thanksgiving day each year- the most celebrated rivalry west of the Mississippi.

The Border Wars were far from over, and some would argue that they've never really ended.

And to add more insults to the stereotypes, the winner of this "Turkey Day Battle" was rewarded with an "Indian War drum traveling trophy." Starting in 1937, MU's Kansas City Alumni Association with the help of Kansas University Letterman's Association presented an authentic Indian drum each Thanksgiving to the winner.
Top photo: 1893 KU football team
Bottom photo: 1893 MU football team
Courtesy of KU/MU Archives

They wanted to keep it "real," so they commissioned the Osage Indian tribe to make it... since they were the original "landowners" in Missouri and Kansas.

How appropriate.

On a side note, the trophy allegedly disappeared only to resurface in the 1980s in a Columbia, Mo. basement, tucked away forgotten in midst storage boxes.

The first matchup between football teams happened October 31, 1891 in Kansas City at Exposition Park at 15th and Montgall. According to the Kansas City Star, “Society was represented by many of its best known devotees.”  The beginning of the modern-day “border wars,” the Jayhawks were able to secure a 22-10 win over the Tigers.

The Thanksgiving date was used for the Border Wars game starting on November 30, 1893 at Exposition Park in Kansas City, Mo. The Kansas City Star reported, "Out at Exposition Park this afternoon there will be a wondrous blending of college colors and college yells. . . The pretty girls and the girls not so pretty will be there in force."

Kansas City Journal, Nov. 24, 1898 

To add insult to injury, the article continues, "To be sure [the women] don't understand the game, but there will be plenty of men on hand to instruct them in foot ball ethics and tell them when to applaud."

Well, it was a different era. Let's just be glad we have made strides in the past 125 years - I know plenty of women that know more about football than most!

3,000 people packed the small stadium, a record crowd for the day, and Mizzou was able to secure a 12-4 win over the Jayhawks.

A weird score, right? Well, touchdowns at the time were worth four points and the extra point was worth two.

Border War football games continued to be played in Kansas City (once in St. Joe) until 1910 where each team took turns hosting the other on turkey day.

Leavenworth Standard, Dec. 1, 1893
In 1939, it was KU’s turn to host the Tigers in Lawrence, but the confusion over the date had things on hold.

Because President Roosevelt’s proclamation truly only affected the the District of Columbia and territories belonging to the United States, it was up to the governors of each state to decide when to celebrate the day.

The MU-KU game was scheduled to be held on Nov. 30 on the date everyone assumed would be Thanksgiving.

This had the governors of each state deciding whether to follow President Roosevelt or hold to the generally-accepted fourth Thursday in November. And just like the Border Wars, Missouri and Kansas chose two different sides.

Governor Payne H. Ratner of Kansas declared, “The Thanksgiving day of November 30, 1939, which is fixed in the calendar and upon which so many people have made definite plans will be retained in Kansas.”

The cover of Time Magazine in 1939
Missouri governor Lloyd C. Stark signed his declaration in August and announced, “We will have only one Thanksgiving day in Missouri. That will be the date set by the President of the United States.”  

This created a pretty serious headache for the two states’s largest universities. If the Thanksgiving Border Wars game between MU and KU was played on Nov. 23, KU would have to change its class schedules. If Mizzou had to play the Thursday after their holiday vacation, they would miss class and attendance at the game would be affected.

A solution was reached; the game, traditionally held on Thanksgiving day, was moved to Sat., Nov. 25 “because of the two conflicting turkey dates in the two states.”

Mizzou won 20-0.

The Tigers and the Jayhawks continued their matchup on Thanksgiving day until the early 1950s.

Due to the chaos leading up to the 1939 Thanksgiving, President Roosevelt gave advanced notice when he designated Thurs., Nov. 21st (the third Thursday in Nov.) the official Thanksgiving for 1940. He declared the date in October 1939.

Congress passed a law Dec. 26, 1941 giving us a “unified Thanksgiving the fourth Thursday of November.” Thankfully since then, there has been no confusion as to when we gather to give our thanks across the nation.

This piece is dedicated to my friends, Mizzou Tiger Cristin Blunt and Kansas Jayhawk Tim Reidy :)

If you enjoyed this piece, please consider searching "The New Santa Fe Trailer" on Facebook and LIKING my page so you don't miss any of these fun stories about our history!
Time Magazine 1893 comic shows the nation's new love of Thanksgiving day football

No comments:

Post a Comment