Tag Archives: Thanksgiving

A POEM FOR THANKSGIVING

I’ve shared the poem below before, but I thought I would circulate it again as we near the Thanksgiving holiday.  I first came across it this summer when reading a book recommended to the Wheaton faculty: Christine Pohl’s Living into Community: Cultivating Practices that Sustain Us, by Christine Pohl.   The first practice that Pohl highlights is the expression of gratitude, and much of what she had to say hit me right between the eyes.

The poem that Pohl alerted me to is “Gratefulness,” by the seventeenth-century English poet George Herbert.  I have previously written about Herbert with regard to his marvelous poem “Joseph’s Coat,” which is probably my favorite poem by any author.  “Gratefulness” also impresses me deeply.  I love the plea with which Herbert opens and concludes his poem: the plea for a grateful heart that sees God’s grace and mercy in all things.

George Herbert (1599-1633) from a 1674 painting by Robert White

George Herbert (1599-1633) from a 1674 painting by Robert White

But first, a reminder about who George Herbert was.  George Herbert was born at the end of the 16th century into a powerful English family. His father held the aristocratic title “Lord of Cherbury” and sat in Parliament. The son, who was educated at Cambridge and became a favorite of England’s King James I, seemed destined to a life of wealth, prestige, and political prominence before he decided to take orders as an Anglican priest in his mid-thirties. For three years he labored as a country parson in a tiny parish southwest of London, before succumbing to tuberculosis at the age of thirty-nine. “Gratefulness” is part of a collection of poems by Herbert that was published shortly after his death.  I hope it speaks to you as it has to me.

                    “Gratefulness”

Thou that hast given so much to me,
Give one thing more, a grateful heart.
See how thy beggar works on thee
By art.

He makes thy gifts occasion more,
And says, If he in this be crossed,
All thou hast given him heretofore
Is lost.

But thou didst reckon, when at first
Thy word our hearts and hands did crave,
What it would come to at the worst
To save.

Perpetual knockings at thy door,
Tears sullying thy transparent rooms,
Gift upon gift, much would have more,
And comes.

This notwithstanding, thou wenst on,
And didst allow us all our noise:
Nay thou hast made a sigh and groan
Thy joys.

Not that thou hast not still above
Much better tunes, than groans can make;
But that these country-airs thy love
Did take.

Wherefore I cry, and cry again;
And in no quiet canst thou be,
Till I a thankful heart obtain
Of thee:

Not thankful, when it pleaseth me;
As if thy blessings had spare days:
But such a heart, whose pulse may be
Thy praise.

St. Andrew's Church in Bemerton, Wiltshire, where George Herbert served as rector.

St. Andrew’s Church in Bemerton, Wiltshire, where George Herbert served as rector.

THANKSGIVING AND FOOTBALL

turkeyballOne of my favorite cartoons about the First Thanksgiving shows several Pilgrim and Wampanoag women in the foreground setting a table for a huge feast, while in the background their husbands (both Native American and Pilgrim) are playing a rousing game of football.  Obviously worn out from cooking, one woman turns to another and says “I sure hope this doesn’t get to be a tradition!”

So how old, really, is the connection between Thanksgiving and football?  A lot older than most of us would guess.  As early as 1928, the Saturday Evening Post cover below suggested the centrality of football to America’s Thanksgiving.  Notice the almost perfect symmetry between the two figures.

From the November 24, 1928 cover of the Saturday Evening Post.

From the November 24, 1928 cover of the Saturday Evening Post.

The cartoon below suggests that the Thanksgiving-football connection is even older, however.  This very busy cartoon by Samuel Ehrhart appeared in Puck in the year 1912.  (Puck was a popular national humor magazine published between 1871 and 1918.)  Notice how the crowds are flocking to see the advertised football contest pitting “Ye Pilgrims versus Ye Indians” at 2:00 p.m.  Even before WWI, then, Americans had come to take for granted the link between Thanksgiving and football, and the cartoon’s gag consists of imagining our ancestors from the 17th century as enjoying the same pastime.

03749v

But the Thanksgiving-football connection actually goes back much further than this.  One hundred thirty-eight years ago—in 1876—the newly formed Intercollegiate Football Association (with all of four member schools) determined to hold its first championship game in New York City on Thanksgiving Day.  In no time at all the annual Thanksgiving Day championship game had become the country’s premier sporting event, drawing crowds upwards of forty thousand by the early 1890s.

From Harper's Weekly, December 20, 1879

From Harper’s Weekly, December 20, 1879

In 1891, a writer for Harper’s Weekly observed that in New York “a great and powerful and fascinating rival has come to take the place of the Thanksgiving Day Dinner . . . the Thanksgiving Day Game.”  Soon big “rivalry” games were becoming Thanksgiving traditions in Washington, Chicago, St. Louis, and Los Angeles.  Significantly, they were also spreading into southern cities, and it is no exaggeration to say that the growing popularity of Thanksgiving Day football helped to reconcile southerners to the Yankee holiday.  By 1893 the tradition was so entrenched that the New York Herald could lament, “Thanksgiving Day is no longer a solemn festival to God for mercies given. . . . It is a holiday granted by the State and the Nation to see a game of football.”

Football wasn’t the only option for those inclined to pleasure on this once “holy day,” however.  By the end of the century there were car races in Chicago; bicycle races in Los Angeles; balls, parties, golf tournaments, and theater matinees in the nation’s capital.  While a West Coast journalist insisted that “the mingling of sports with prayer harms no well-regulated normal community,” a Chicago newsman predicted that “the churches will have to devise some more attractive program . . . if the religious feature of Thanksgiving Day is to be preserved.”

The year of this warning was 1897.

THE FIRST THANKSGIVING IN AMERICAN MEMORY–PART ONE

In recent years I’ve become more and more fascinated with popular historical memory.  It’s an odd phenomenon, really.  By definition, it exists at the intersection between past and present.  In the best case, it’s informed (at least somewhat) by historical evidence, but it’s always influenced by the contemporary context as well.  This means that one of the best ways to track the changing values of a culture is to examine how popular memory of a particular historical event differs over time.  The memory of the Pilgrims and the First Thanksgiving is a case in point.

The history of popular memory of the First Thanksgiving falls neatly into two broad periods separated by a crucial event in the year 1841.  The first of the two is the simplest to characterize.  For 220 years after the Pilgrims’ 1621 harvest celebration, almost no one remembered the event that later generations would recall as a defining episode in the founding of America.  To our knowledge, there was only one contemporary record made of the event.  Sometime shortly after the celebration, a Pilgrim named Edward Winslow wrote a letter back to an acquaintance in England in which he sketched how the passengers of the Mayflower had fared since their arrival at Plymouth.  In the course of that letter, which was published as part of pamphlet in 1622, Winslow included a 115-word description of the event we now remember as the “First Thanksgiving.”

Edward Winslow, unknown artist, 1651. Winslow sat for the portrait while in England, three decades after penning the only first-hand account of the First Thanksgiving.

Edward Winslow, unknown artist, 1651. Winslow sat for the portrait while in England, three decades after penning the only first-hand account of the First Thanksgiving.

The pamphlet containing the description was published in England under the modest title A Relation or Journall of the Beginning and Proceedings of the English Plantation Setled at Plimoth in New England, by Certaine English Adventurers both Merchants and Others, with the Difficult Passage, their Safe Arrivall, their Joyfull Building of, and Comfortable Planting Themselves in the Now Well Defended Towne of New Plimoth.  The printer who actually published the book was one “G. Mourt,” and the pamphlet has been known ever by the mercifully shorter title Mourt’s Relation.  (In the seventeenth century, “relation” was another word for “report” or “account.)

Rare in England, Mourt’s Relation was rarer still in the American colonies, and by the beginning of the eighteenth century there was probably not a single copy of it in all of New England.  With neither oral tradition nor a written record to keep it alive, the 1621 event gradually faded until it vanished entirely.

The opposite was true of Thanksgiving itself.  As memory of the First Thanksgiving died away, the celebration of Thanksgiving became more popular, not less.  The original Pilgrims had been very skeptical of regular holy days.  (Remember that our word “holiday” is just an elision of the two words “holy day.”)  The Pilgrims associated regular holidays with the perceived abuses of Catholicism, and in general the only true holy day that they celebrated regularly was the Lord’s Day every Sunday.  Their descendants, however, gradually forgot or rejected their ancestors’ hostility to regularly scheduled holidays.  By the 1690s they had adopted a pattern of annual springtime Fast Days, to beseech God’s blessing on the crop about to be planted, and autumn Thanksgiving Days, in which they thanked the Lord for the harvest just past.

While the custom of springtime fasts never caught on elsewhere, the celebration of regular autumn Thanksgivings spread across New England during the eighteenth century, expanded to the Midwest after the War of 1812, and began to catch on in the Upper South by the 1840s.  Thanksgiving was becoming a beloved American holiday, just not one linked to the Pilgrims.

Since the late-18th century the Pilgrims had been growing in importance in American memory, but the part that they played in the national story was as generic “founders” or “forefathers.”  Thinking of their national story as a series of dramatic images, Americans imagined the Pilgrims huddled on Plymouth Rock, not gathered around the Thanksgiving table.  Out of 223 colonial or state thanksgiving proclamations I have located from the years 1676-1840, not a single one refers to the Pilgrims, even euphemistically.  It was as if the Pilgrims’ 1621 celebration had never occurred.  Americans thought of their Thanksgiving tradition as coming mainly from New England Puritans but did not think of it as originating in a particular historical moment.  As late as 1840, the “First Thanksgiving” was simply not a part of historical memory.

It became a part of popular historical memory not in 1621 but in 1841, the year that Edward Winslow’s account of the Pilgrims’ harvest celebration reentered the historical record.  The key figure in the process was the Reverend Alexander Young, a New England-born Unitarian minister with a passion for local history.  Working with a copy of Mourt’s Relation discovered in Philadelphia a generation earlier, Young included the text of the pamphlet in a compilation of historical documents he titled Chronicles of the Pilgrim Fathers.  The reverend appended his own explanatory notes to the manuscript, and when he came to Winslow’s description of the Pilgrims’ celebration, the clergyman explained to his audience that what they were reading was an account of the “first thanksgiving . . . of New England.”

The result was that Americans gradually became more and more aware of the Pilgrims’ celebration. Notice I said aware, not impressed. Generations would pass before Americans widely embraced the story of the Pilgrims’ First Thanksgiving as an important chapter in the early history of America. So why was this?

I can think of three reasons. For starters, Winslow’s account showed that the Wampanoag Indians had played a prominent role in the Pilgrims’ celebration. Winslow had devoted only one sentence to the Wampanoag, but that lone sentence made two disturbing facts undeniable: the majority of those present at the “First Thanksgiving” had been Indians, not Pilgrims, and the two groups had interacted peacefully.

The revelation was jarring, especially outside of the Northeast. In 1841, Thanksgiving was still almost exclusively a northern holiday, flourishing particularly in New England and in areas farther west to which New Englanders had migrated in large numbers. In New England—where few Native Americans remained in 1841—it was possible for Yankees to romanticize the “noble savage” and to imagine a carefully circumscribed role for Indians in their beloved regional holiday. Elsewhere this was far from easy.

In 1841 the southeastern United states was only three years removed from the infamous “Trail of Tears,” the forced relocation of the Cherokee Indians from Georgia to Oklahoma that had resulted in more than four thousand Cherokee deaths. West of the Mississippi, violence would continue to punctuate Indian-white relations for another two generations, on scattered battlefields with evocative names like Sand Creek, Little Big Horn, and Wounded Knee. Correspondingly, until long after the Civil War, most artistic representations of Thanksgiving that included Native Americans portrayed them as openly hostile, and it is no coincidence that the now familiar image of Indians and Pilgrims sitting around a common table dates from the early twentieth century. By that time America’s Indian wars were comfortably past, and it would begin to be broadly possible in the public mind to reinterpret the place of Native Americans at the Thanksgiving table. But that would come later. In 1841 the national policy toward Native Americans was not assimilation but removal, and in that respect the First Thanksgiving fit awkwardly in the national story.

This 1877 painting by Charles Howard Johnson portrays Native Americas as hostile to the Pilgrims.  It was the late-19th century before the Pilgrims and Indians began to be portrayed as friends.

This 1877 painting by Charles Howard Johnson portrays Native Americas as hostile to the Pilgrims. It was the late-19th century before the Pilgrims and Indians began to be portrayed as friends.

Keep in mind also the growing sectional rivalry of the period. Winslow’s account of the 1621 celebration was republished just as tensions between North and South were beginning to mount. Unfortunately, fans of Thanksgiving had traditionally emphasized its regional ties. New England magazines and newspapers boasted that the holiday was “strictly one of New England origin.” The custom was “precious to every New-England man,” and without its recurrence “a Yankee could scarce comprehend that the year had passed.” More to the point, white southerners also associated the holiday with New England, and that made it suspect in their eyes. Even as it gradually expanded southward, there was a lingering tendency among southerners to think of Thanksgiving as a holiday invented by Pharisaical Yankees to take the place of Christmas, which Puritans had traditionally spurned.

New Englanders did little to make the holiday easier to swallow. From our twenty-first-century perspective, one of the striking things about Thanksgiving in antebellum America is how politicized it could be. For southern whites, it didn’t help that northern governors often endorsed the abolition of slavery in their annual proclamations, or that antislavery organizations sometimes took up collections at thanksgiving services, or that New England abolitionists wrote poetry linking the “Pilgrim Spirit” to John Brown’s raid at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia. (In 1859, Brown and a small band of followers occupied the federal arsenal in that place as the first step in an ill-defined plot to foment a slave uprising. Yankee educator Franklin Sanborn, a secret supporter of Brown’s scheme, penned a tribute to the antislavery zealot, noting that “the Pilgrim Fathers’ earnest creed . . . inspired this hero’s noblest deed.”)

As the crisis of the Union came to a head, the Richmond Daily Dispatch surely spoke for many southerners in mocking New England’s favorite holiday. When a New York newspaper reported that the newly elected Abraham Lincoln had celebrated the holiday “like the rest of Anglo-Saxon mankind,” the editor of the Dispatch erupted. Thanksgiving was unknown outside “a few Yankee Doodle States,” he insisted with some exaggeration, “but it is a common notion of New England, that it is the hub of the whole creation, the axis of the entire universe, and that when it thanks God that it is not as other men, everybody else is doing the same. . . . What a race these sycophants are!”

A final reason for the Pilgrims’ limited usefulness to mid-nineteenth century Americans, I believe, is that they had come to celebrate Thanksgiving in a way that the Pilgrims would not have recognized, much less approved. This had not been intentional. Americans’ Thanksgiving traditions had developed while the country knew nothing about the First Thanksgiving. And then, after two centuries, in the span of less than two decades the veil was pulled back. The first step had been the republication of Mourt’s Relation, but much more was involved. A decade later came the release of three volumes of writings and sermons from the Pilgrims’ pastor in Leiden, John Robinson. Five years after that came the dramatic publication of Pilgrim Governor William Bradford’s long-lost history Of Plymouth Plantation.

Collectively, these sources revealed that the Pilgrims had roundly criticized the Church of England for its numerous annual holidays. All three underscored the Pilgrims’ conviction that Days of Thanksgiving should be proclaimed irregularly and should center on public worship. Unfortunately for the Pilgrims’ popularity, mid-nineteenth-century Americans had precisely reversed these criteria. By the eve of the Civil War, the “traditional American Thanksgiving” was a regularly scheduled celebration centered inside the home.

If the Pilgrims’ story was to become an important part of Thanksgiving, there was much that would have to change.  We’ll talk about those changes next time.

THANKSGIVING IN PICTURES

Just a few images of Thanksgiving that come to my mind today as I read about current events.  They don’t add up to a clear historical narrative–just food for thought.

“Home to Thanksgiving,” George H. Durrie, 1861. As late as the Civil War, homecoming was probably the most common theme of Thanksgiving images. For supporters of the holiday, Thanksgiving was “supremely the home day,” with “the gathering together of the family its most charming feature.”

“Home to Thanksgiving,” George H. Durrie, 1861. As late as the Civil War, homecoming was probably the most common theme of Thanksgiving images. For supporters of the holiday, Thanksgiving was “supremely the home day,” with “the gathering together of the family its most charming feature.”

 

"Football Match between Yale and Princeton," Harper's Weekly, 1879. In 1876 the newly formed Intercollegiate Football Association held its championship game on Thanksgiving Day in New York City, and in short order the annual Thanksgiving Day contest had evolved into the country’s premier sporting event, drawing crowds upwards of forty thousand by the early 1890s.

“Football Match between Yale and Princeton,” Harper’s Weekly, 1879. In 1876 the newly formed Intercollegiate Football Association held its championship game on Thanksgiving Day in New York City, and in short order the annual Thanksgiving Day contest had evolved into the country’s premier sporting event, drawing crowds upwards of forty thousand by the early 1890s.

 

“Thanksgiving: A Study in Proportion,” Udo Keppler, 1912. BY the early twentieth century, numerous commentators feared that Thanksgiving had become nothing more than a day for pleasure and self-indulgence. This Puck cartoon shows a pile of large items representing the pleasures of the holiday—a football, golf clubs, a shotgun, a theater mask and, of course, a turkey—towering over a dark and probably empty church in the background.

“Thanksgiving: A Study in Proportion,” Udo Keppler, 1912. By the early twentieth century, numerous commentators feared that Thanksgiving had become nothing more than a day for pleasure and self-indulgence. This Puck cartoon shows a pile of large items representing the pleasures of the holiday—a football, golf clubs, a shotgun, a theater mask and, of course, a turkey—towering over a dark and probably empty church in the background.

 

"First Thanksgiving at Plymouth," Jeannie Brownscombe, 1914. On the eve of WWI, Brownscombe's imaginative recreation of the "First Thanksgiving" helped link Thanksgiving with the Pilgrims 1621 celebration in the public mind. Although full of historical inaccuracies, the artist did rightly portray the feast as a large, public, outdoor event.

“First Thanksgiving at Plymouth,” Jeannie Brownscombe, 1914. On the eve of WWI, Brownscombe’s imaginative recreation of the “First Thanksgiving” helped link Thanksgiving with the Pilgrims’ 1621 celebration in the public mind. Although full of historical inaccuracies, the artist did rightly portray the feast as a large, public, outdoor event.

 

"Freedom from Want," Norman Rockwell, 1943. This now iconic portrayal of a family Thanksgiving meal graced the cover of the Saturday Evening Post in the midst of WWII.

“Freedom from Want,” Norman Rockwell, 1943. This now iconic portrayal of a family Thanksgiving meal graced the cover of the Saturday Evening Post in the midst of World War Two.

 

Thanksgiving Night, 2015? A spontaneous photograph of early Black Friday violence sweeps the internet.

Thanksgiving Night, 2015? This spontaneous photograph of early Black Friday violence has swept the internet.

THANKSGIVING AND FOOTBALL

TWENTY-TWO days to Thanksgiving and counting.  As an alternative to the ubiquitous countdown to Black Friday, each weekday between now and Thanksgiving I will be posting brief essays on the history of the First Thanksgiving and its place in American memory. 

**********

turkeyballOne of my favorite cartoons about the First Thanksgiving shows several Pilgrim and Wampanoag women in the foreground setting a table for a huge feast, while in the background their husbands (both Native American and Pilgrim) are playing a rousing game of football.  Obviously worn out from cooking, one woman turns to another and says “I sure hope this doesn’t get to be a tradition!”

So how old, really, is the connection between Thanksgiving and football?  A lot older than most of us would guess.  As early as 1928, the Saturday Evening Post cover below suggested the centrality of football to America’s Thanksgiving.  Notice the almost perfect symmetry between the two figures.

From the November 24, 1928 cover of the Saturday Evening Post.

From the November 24, 1928 cover of the Saturday Evening Post.

The cartoon below suggests that the Thanksgiving-football connection is even older, however.  This very busy cartoon by Samuel Ehrhart appeared in Puck in the year 1912.  (Puck was a popular national humor magazine published between 1871 and 1918.)  Notice how the crowds are flocking to see the advertised football contest pitting “Ye Pilgrims versus Ye Indians” at 2:00 p.m.  Even before WWI, then, Americans had come to take for granted the link between Thanksgiving and football, and the cartoon’s gag consists of imagining our ancestors from the 17th century as enjoying the same pastime.

03749v

But the Thanksgiving-football connection actually goes back much further than this.  One hundred thirty-eight years ago—in 1876—the newly formed Intercollegiate Football Association (with all of four member schools) determined to hold its first championship game in New York City on Thanksgiving Day.  In no time at all the annual Thanksgiving Day championship game had become the country’s premier sporting event, drawing crowds upwards of forty thousand by the early 1890s.

From Harper's Weekly, December 20, 1879

From Harper’s Weekly, December 20, 1879

In 1891, a writer for Harper’s Weekly observed that in New York “a great and powerful and fascinating rival has come to take the place of the Thanksgiving Day Dinner . . . the Thanksgiving Day Game.”  Soon big “rivalry” games were becoming Thanksgiving traditions in Washington, Chicago, St. Louis, and Los Angeles.  Significantly, they were also spreading into southern cities, and it is no exaggeration to say that the growing popularity of Thanksgiving Day football helped to reconcile southerners to the Yankee holiday.  By 1893 the tradition was so entrenched that the New York Herald could lament, “Thanksgiving Day is no longer a solemn festival to God for mercies given. . . . It is a holiday granted by the State and the Nation to see a game of football.”

Football wasn’t the only option for those inclined to pleasure on this once “holy day,” however.  By the end of the century there were car races in Chicago; bicycle races in Los Angeles; balls, parties, golf tournaments, and theater matinees in the nation’s capital.  While a West Coast journalist insisted that “the mingling of sports with prayer harms no well-regulated normal community,” a Chicago newsman predicted that “the churches will have to devise some more attractive program . . . if the religious feature of Thanksgiving Day is to be preserved.”  The year of this warning was 1897.

THREE CHEERS FOR R.E.I.

Thanksgiving is less than four weeks away, but I’m not sure anyone has noticed. On the whole, Americans have long since forsaken the idea of a Thanksgiving season. Tomorrow is Halloween, and the Hallmark Channel officially begins its “Countdown to Christmas” movie schedule the very same night. (If you’re disinclined to watch something spooky, you can go ahead and shift into mistletoe mode by watching A Princess for Christmas or Hitched for the Holidays.) In sum, we now pretty much transition directly from the Halloween “season” to the Christmas season, and Thanksgiving Day itself has become more and more the equivalent of “Black Friday Eve.”

Even that’s not strictly correct anymore, as fewer and fewer national chains are waiting till Friday morning to open their doors. In a move that’s all too likely a portent of things to come, K-Mart recently announced that it will open at 6:00 a.m. on Thanksgiving morning and remain open for the next forty-two consecutive hours. In a masterpiece of Orwellian doublespeak, a senior executive for the corporation presented its blatantly opportunistic initiative as a disinterested expression of holiday spirit. “This holiday season is all about giving,” vice-president Leena Munjal rhapsodized, and “because many [customers] like to start shopping well before Black Friday, we’re excited to open our doors early on Thanksgiving and offer other early access opportunities for them to shop and save.” How generous. Munjal went on to thank the corporations’ thousands of minimum-wage “seasonal associates” who have “volunteered” to share part of their Thanksgiving serving this worthy cause. I hope none of them gets trampled to death.

Not all the Thanksgiving reports are depressing, however. Costco and Nordstrom have both announced that they will not open on Thanksgiving, and REI has gone even further in the right direction. Not only will the sporting goods and outdoor gear retailer be closed on Thanksgiving; earlier this week the company stunned the business world by announcing that it will be giving its employees a paid day off on Black Friday as well and is encouraging them to spend the day outdoors instead of at the mall.

Good for REI. Americans have not celebrated Thanksgiving primarily as a religious holiday for more than a century and a half. The first Thanksgiving Day college football game took place during Reconstruction, for goodness sake, and even as early as the Civil War religious writers were lamenting the secularization of the holiday. But while Americans in large numbers by the late-19th century were celebrating Thanksgiving by attending sporting events, dances, and plays, the day was still remarkably free of commercialism, much less the frenzied consumerism that now threatens to overwhelm it. I can’t speak to REI’s motives, but this looks like a welcome step in a healthy direction.

Just in case you’re like me and resent the way that we are now skipping over Thanksgiving entirely in our rush to open the Christmas shopping season, might I suggest that you read the following book as a good way to fight back against the craziness?

First Thanksgiving

OK, so this will undoubtedly appear as an act of Shameless Self-Promotion, but in all honesty, I wrote The First Thanksgiving in response to a sense of calling to be in conversation with the church about what it means to think Christianly about the past.  If that is something that you aspire to, consider picking it up or ordering it from Amazon.  If you would like to read a brief review of the book before forking over nearly $14 to add it to your library, Christian historian Jay Case of Malone University has written a wonderful synopsis on his blog, “The Circuit Reader,” and you can link to it here.

THANKSGIVING AND FOOTBALL: IT’S AN OLDER TRADITION THAN YOU THINK

turkeyball

One of my favorite cartoons about the First Thanksgiving shows several Pilgrim and Wampanoag women in the foreground setting a table for a huge feast, while in the background their husbands (both Native American and Pilgrim) are playing a rousing game of football.  Obviously worn out from cooking, one woman turns to another and says “I sure hope this doesn’t get to be a tradition!”

So how old, really, is the connection between Thanksgiving and football?  A lot older than most of us would guess.  As early as 1928, the Saturday Evening Post cover below suggested the centrality of football to America’s Thanksgiving.  Notice the almost perfect symmetry between the two figures.

From the November 24, 1928 cover of the Saturday Evening Post.

From the November 24, 1928 cover of the Saturday Evening Post.

The cartoon below suggests that the Thanksgiving-football connection is even older, however.  This very busy cartoon by Samuel Ehrhart appeared in Puck in the year 1912.  (Puck was a popular national humor magazine published between 1871 and 1918.)  Notice how the crowds are flocking to see the advertised football contest pitting “Ye Pilgrims versus Ye Indians” at 2:00 p.m.  Even before WWI, then, Americans had come to take for granted the link between Thanksgiving and football, and the cartoon’s gag consists of imagining our ancestors from the 17th century as enjoying the same pastime.

03749v

 

But the Thanksgiving-football connection actually goes back much further than this.  One hundred thirty-eight years ago—in 1876—the newly formed Intercollegiate Football Association (with all of four member schools) determined to hold its first championship game in New York City on Thanksgiving Day.  In no time at all the annual Thanksgiving Day championship game had become the country’s premier sporting event, drawing crowds upwards of forty thousand by the early 1890s.

From Harper's Weekly, December 20, 1879

From Harper’s Weekly, December 20, 1879

 

In 1891, a writer for Harper’s Weekly observed that in New York “a great and powerful and fascinating rival has come to take the place of the Thanksgiving Day Dinner . . . the Thanksgiving Day Game.”  Soon big “rivalry” games were becoming Thanksgiving traditions in Washington, Chicago, St. Louis, and Los Angeles.  Significantly, they were also spreading into southern cities, and it is no exaggeration to say that the growing popularity of Thanksgiving Day football helped to reconcile southerners to the Yankee holiday.  By 1893 the tradition was so entrenched that the New York Herald could lament, “Thanksgiving Day is no longer a solemn festival to God for mercies given. . . . It is a holiday granted by the State and the Nation to see a game of football.”

Football wasn’t the only option for those inclined to pleasure on this once “holy day,” however.  By the end of the century there were car races in Chicago; bicycle races in Los Angeles; balls, parties, golf tournaments, and theater matinees in the nation’s capital.  While a West Coast journalist insisted that “the mingling of sports with prayer harms no well-regulated normal community,” a Chicago newsman predicted that “the churches will have to devise some more attractive program . . . if the religious feature of Thanksgiving Day is to be preserved.”  The year of this warning was 1897.

FTcover