I am an “Over the River and Through the Woods” kind of gal when it comes to Thanksgiving. As such, I consider several modern trends somehow disrespectful to the holiday’s original meaning, expressed by Abraham Lincoln in the very first Thanksgiving Day Proclamation issued to our divided country during the Civil War: “It has seemed to me fit and proper that gracious gifts of the Most High God should be solemnly, reverently, and gratefully acknowledged, as with one heart and one voice, by the whole American people.”
I turned to the Champaign County Library’s website to browse through old newspapers dated the Wednesday before Thanksgiving. What a window into the good, old days I found there!
Society sections contained entry after entry of holiday plans: in 1913 “Professor May and family will spend Thanksgiving with relatives in Marion.” And in 1936: “Dr. and Mrs. Harry W. Barr will entertain a family dinner on Thanksgiving Day at the manse on North Main Street.”
In 1930, with the nation in the grips of the Great Depression, the UDC featured a front-page poem by Civil War historian Bruce Catton: “We thank Thee, God, that once again/The need we have to share with others/Has wakened, in the hearts of man/The charity that makes us brothers.”
I recall programs at Concord similar to this one in 1939: “North Lewisburg School presented their annual Thanksgiving Day program with all grades participating in recitations and playlets,” and in 1954: “Urbana Local School presented a public Thanksgiving program with devotions, group singing, and a message by Reverend R.J. Sikkel of Urbana First Baptist Church.”
I also read other noteworthy news items. There were the 21 inches of snow that blizzarded into the area right after Thanksgiving in 1950. And in 1963 the UDC honored newly-sworn President Lyndon Johnson’s request to publish the Thanksgiving Day Proclamation of John Kennedy, who had been assassinated less than a week earlier.
My research also uncovered some events not matching my Norman Rockwell vision of past Thanksgivings, instead seemingly foreshadowing the current customs I find objectionable.
I take a dim view of stores opening on Thanksgiving Day for retail shopping. However, as explained in the 1925 UDC, Sam Bianchi and the Loverde Brothers opened their fruit markets on Thanksgiving: “Some merchants will find it almost necessary to remain open until the noon hour, because of the nature of their trade.” I was totally unprepared, though, to read that Stadler’s, the clothing store, was almost always open on Thanksgiving – as early as 1910.
While commercial considerations today seem to crowd out Thanksgiving in the rush to Christmas sales, I was surprised that in 1918 The Mammoth advertised beds as Christmas gifts before Thanksgiving and that children in 1945 could listen to Santa Claus every afternoon at 4:15 on WIZE. I was also taken aback to see “Christmas” spelled “Xmas” in a 1918 Hardware Supply Company advertisement.
I paused, however, to read a 1925 front-page editorial because it seemed to combine my quaint, traditional Thanksgiving vision with our modern-day celebrations. Penned seven years after World War I and four years before the Great Depression, this edited version of the long-ago Thanksgiving opinion piece sounds almost current:
“Thursday is Thanksgiving Day.
That is not simply a mere statement although as such it may be construed by a number of persons who forget the real meaning of the day and what vivid recollections of rejoicing it brought not so many years ago to our Pilgrim forefathers who knelt in solemn prayer and Thanksgiving, rejoicing that there was a little store of corn, that they had been saved from the Indians, that their little log cabin had only a few cracks in it, and that the supply of venison meat was good for another month or two.
Blessings were few and far between in those pioneer days, and yet sometimes one wonders if that wasn’t the real reason why they were all the more appreciated.
Today our cup of cheer is filled to overflowing. Today we have electric lights, electric vacuum sweepers, electric washers, modern homes and farm machinery, automobiles, street cars, railroads and other means of transportation, good roads, fine homes, warm clothes—it is impossible to enumerate all the kindred joys and comforts of life in this modern nation.
Yet there are calamity howlers and pessimists. And there are many—far too many—who are ungrateful. They belong to that same class which opposed war during the recent world conflict.
But we don’t like to think of the pessimist on Thanksgiving Day. We like to think of the happy things of life. We like to contemplate on the great store house of grain and crops which the farmers of this county have accumulated for the winter; we like to travel out over the winding country pike and see the fields blooming golden with yellow pumpkins and ripe corn; we like to gaze on the happy faces of the children at play; we like to see the men starting out to their work with their dinner pails.
That is what we like to contemplate the day before Thanksgiving. Is there any wonder you should be able to forget that football game tomorrow for a time and get down on your knees and in real, honest-to-goodness language thank God that you are alive and able to live in such a joyous time!”