When you think of the history of Thanksgiving, you’d be hard-pressed not to picture funny Pilgrim hats and stereotyped Native Americans. These days, most of us know that the sanitized story we learned in grade school bears little resemblance to the real history of the Plymouth colony. But it might still come as a surprise to hear that, as Anne Blue Wills argues in a 2003 article in Church History, Thanksgiving as we know it was deliberately invented in the nineteenth century.
Wills traces the holiday’s traditions, the reunions of dispersed families in their childhood homes and the tables groaning under the weight of turkey and stuffing and pie, to the popular magazines that were beginning to give the nation a more unified culture in the mid-1800s. In particular, she writes that Sarah Hale, the editor of Godey’s Lady’s Book and Magazine “badgered national leaders” to formally recognize the holiday, which Abraham Lincoln did in 1863.
While colonial celebrations of Thanksgiving revolved around religious belief, Hale’s vision of the holiday was, above all, about America’s history and place in the world. The existing patriotic holidays of Washington’s Birthday and the Fourth of July both had a military element. In contrast, Thanksgiving celebrated America’s moral power and the domestic “women’s sphere.”
“The Godey’s editor meant, therefore, for the American homemaker to manage Thanksgiving,” Wills writes. “Women’s leadership on this most American of days was essential—practically and ideologically—and Godey’s and other women’s magazines taught their readers how to prepare the feast and summon the far-flung family together to eat it.”
Another major theme of the holiday, as presented in the magazines, was the celebration of white, Protestant culture in the face of perceived threats from Jewish and Roman Catholic immigrants and freed blacks. In some magazine stories, Thanksgiving brought these “outsiders” into the dominant culture, helping them develop an appreciation for the nation’s rural, old-fashioned, humble values.
As America became more mobile and began to transform from an agricultural economy to an industrial one, Godey’s and other magazines called far-flung family members to use the developing railway system to head back home for the holiday. And as urban centers grew, Thanksgiving became a celebration of the rural life that was losing its centrality to the nation.
“In fact, the Thanksgiving way of life became, for many, a more urgent need—a brake to keep the alloyed good of ‘progress’ from spinning out of control,” Wills writes. “As this festival united U.S. citizens, set them apart from the rest of the world and fit them for a certain way of life, it also knit itself into their memories and tempered their behavior. Thanksgiving encouraged submission, not to a sovereign providence, but to the project of the nation.”