How Thanksgiving, the "Yankee Abolitionist Holiday," Won Over the South

Sautéed Green Beans With Mushrooms and Caramelized Cipollini Onions

If the green bean casserole grew up, attended finishing school, and went on a diet, it would turn into this dish. With the exception of cream, it contains all the components of the original casserole and packs a punch of nostalgic flavor (we'll fight you for the last caramelized onion).

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[Photograph: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt]

It's November, and countless magazines and websites are running features on how to stage a Southern-style Thanksgiving dinner. Saveur's version starts with a pickle platter and deviled eggs, and its cornbread-stuffed turkey is accompanied by spicy collards, followed by bourbon-flavored pecan pie. Bourbon appears in the Food Network's collection of Southern-themed Turkey Day dishes, too, in the form of whiskey-glazed sweet potatoes, which appear alongside biscuits, cornbread pudding, and red velvet cake.

A true old-fashioned Southern Thanksgiving, though, would be a pretty spartan affair, for that particular holiday feast was all but unknown in the South for most of the 19th century. Thanksgiving was a Yankee holiday, birthed in New England and adorned with that region's symbols and traditions: Pilgrims, turkey, pumpkins, and cranberries.

Southerners came late to the Thanksgiving table, and when they finally did, they didn't lay out down-home spreads of collards, country ham, and black-eyed peas. Instead, the Thanksgiving dinners first enjoyed in the South were almost indistinguishable from those being served in Boston or Ohio. And for good reason.

A Yankee Tradition Lights Out From Home

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The celebration of Thanksgiving dates back to the Mayflower days in colonial Massachusetts, and over the course of the 18th century, it evolved into a holiday celebrated around the dinner table. As New England became more densely settled, and the good farmland all locked up, its residents started heading west, and they took their social traditions with them, including their annual Thanksgiving holiday. First in upstate New York, then in the newly opened Michigan territories and Ohio's Western Reserve, Yankee settlers on the expanding frontier kept the harvest feast tradition alive.

By the 1840s, Thanksgiving was widely celebrated across the Northeast and Midwest, and what we today consider the traditional Thanksgiving Day menu had largely been canonized: roasted turkey, stuffing, cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes, creamed onions, and mince, apple, and pumpkin pies. (Curiously, chicken pie, an almost universal part of the antebellum Thanksgiving menu, disappeared from the tradition during the 20th century.)

In those days, there was no fixed day for Thanksgiving. Instead, the holiday was declared each year by a special proclamation from the governor of each state, and the day selected could vary wildly year to year, depending upon the whim of the officeholder. Most governors chose a Thursday in late November or early December, but some selected a Saturday, or set the event as early as September or as late as January.

Finally, a group of Yankee editors, teachers, and ministers decided that enough was enough, and they began agitating to make Thanksgiving a uniform national holiday. Their strongest voice was a woman named Sarah Josepha Hale.

Widowed in her mid-30s with five children to raise, the New Hampshire–born Hale had turned to writing to support her family. Northwood; or Life North and South, her first novel, contrasted life in New England and the South, and it dedicated an entire chapter to describing Thanksgiving Day on a New Hampshire farm, declaring that the occasion "should be the same as the Fourth of July, a national holiday."

The novel launched Hale's literary career, and in 1841, she became editor of Godey's Lady's Book, the country's most widely distributed magazine. She took full advantage of that powerful platform to intensify her campaign for a national Thanksgiving Day. Each November issue of the magazine brimmed with Thanksgiving stories and poems, along with detailed instructions for stuffing turkeys and making mince pies, and Hale penned passionate editorials advocating the importance of the holiday, too.

In 1846, Hale launched the first of what would become an annual letter-writing campaign to the nation's governors, in which she urged them to declare a day of Thanksgiving in their states on a uniform day—namely, the last Thursday in November. Her lobbying proved quite successful, not only in the North but in the South as well. Governors Albert G. Brown of Mississippi and Thomas Drew of Arkansas declared their states' first ever Thanksgiving Days in 1947. Governor P. Hansborough Bell did the same for Texas in 1850, and within a few years, most Southern governors had fallen in line, too.

A Yankee Abolitionist Holiday

Sarah Josepha Hale's campaign coincided with a resurgence of religious fervor in all parts of the country in the 1840s and 1850s, and the idea of a national day of Thanksgiving was championed in particular by the Presbyterian Church. But, at the same time, a stronger, more divisive force was on the rise: the growing sectional debate over the institution of slavery.

For her part, Hale hoped a national Thanksgiving holiday would foster national unity and encourage compromise. But the same evangelical Protestant denominations who most strongly advocated for Thanksgiving were also among the most ardent abolitionists. As Diana Karter Appelbaum puts it in her book Thanksgiving: An American Holiday, an American History, more and more Southerners were beginning to view Thanksgiving as a "Yankee abolitionist holiday."

Virginia was the hotbed of anti-Thanksgiving sentiment. In 1853, Governor Joseph Johnson declined to declare a day of Thanksgiving for his state, citing Thomas Jefferson's firm doctrine of separating church and state. Johnson's successor, the slave-owning firebrand Henry A. Wise, was even more intransigent. In 1856, he received the same annual letter from Sarah Josepha Hale that every other governor did, encouraging him to declare a general day of Thanksgiving. Wise not only declined to make the proclamation, but fired back a testy refusal.

"This theatrical national claptrap of Thanksgiving," he declared, "has aided other causes in setting thousands of pulpits to preaching 'Christian politics' instead of humbly letting the carnal Kingdom alone and preaching singly Christ crucified." By "other causes," of course, he meant abolitionism.

That same year, the Richmond Whig elaborated the Southern case against Thanksgiving, excoriating the carnality of the holiday, which the editors felt should instead be spent in divine worship. In the District of Columbia, they noted, where all federal offices would be closed, "an astonishing quantity of execrable liquor will be guzzled," and the holiday would be "little more than an occasion for indulgence in dissipation at the cost of character."

"While we are content," the editors continued, "to buy our cotton spools and wooden ware from New England, because hers are the cheapest, we are by no means content to receive her notions of religion, morals, the duties of citizenship, &c, as being the best."

Anti-Thanksgiving sentiment wasn't confined to Virginia. In 1855, William H. Holcombe, a homeopathic physician in Natchez, Mississippi, recorded in his diary, "This was Thanksgiving day...I am sorry that the Yankee custom has crept in among us. I object to it because it makes gratitude to God a matter of civil ordinance, and limits to a single day the exhibition of feelings which should be a portion of our daily life."

Other commentators noted that the South already had a holiday of feasting and celebration late in the calendar year: Christmas. In New England, which inherited a legacy of Puritan dogma that considered Christmas a secular abomination, Christmas was not observed as a celebratory occasion until the 1870s. To Southern eyes, a day of feasting in late November was redundant, and meant the loss of a day's income for its workers and merchants.

On the eve of the Civil War, the adoption of Thanksgiving in the South remained inconsistent at best, and those who chose to observe the holiday treated it more as a religious occasion and a day of relaxation than a time of feasting and homecoming.

In 1858, the governors of Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, and North and South Carolina all followed Mrs. Hale's recommendations and declared Thursday, November 25, to be a day of Thanksgiving. That day, the Charleston Courier reported, "Our city presented a Sunday appearance. Business rested. The stones answered only to the wheels of light vehicles. The church-bells discoursed sweet music, and crowds flocked to the houses of worship."

In Augusta, Georgia, the Augusta Chronicle reported that "Thursday was more generally observed as a day of Thanksgiving in this city—more generally, we believe, than on any former occasion." That wasn't the case in Montgomery, Alabama, where the Daily Confederation reported that church services were well attended, but "the streets were almost unusually crowded with wagons, and that business houses had to work 'whether they would or not.' Our country friends overlooked the day, and came to town to trade, in great numbers. Cotton is King, and every thing has to give way before his pale-faced majesty."

Reconstructing Thanksgiving After the War

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Lauren Weisenthal

The South's tentative steps toward celebrating Thanksgiving ground to a halt during the Civil War, but Sarah Josepha Hale continued her crusade to make Thanksgiving a uniform national holiday. In 1863, she wrote to Abraham Lincoln encouraging him "to have the day of our annual Thanksgiving made a National and fixed Union Festival." Lincoln complied, and proclaimed a nationwide Thanksgiving Day to occur on the last Thursday in November.

He issued a similar proclamation in 1864, setting a precedent that was followed by all succeeding presidents, who consistently proclaimed the last Thursday in November to be Thanksgiving Day. (In 1939, Franklin Delano Roosevelt moved the holiday permanently to the fourth Thursday in November to ensure retailers had more pre-Christmas shopping days.)

Nominally, as the states of the former Confederacy returned to the Union during Reconstruction, the annual presidential proclamation applied to them, too. The president's authority extended only to closing federal offices on that day, but with Southern statehouses firmly in Republican hands, most governors declared state holidays from 1865 onward, too.

But that didn't mean residents had to celebrate the occasion. In 1868, the Weekly Advocate of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, reported that "Thanksgiving was kept by a portion of the community." Public offices were closed, the courts adjourned, and services held at two churches. But, the paper noted, "Very little preparation had been made for big dinners. Turkeys are scarce, pumpkins are not fashionable eating in these latitudes." Instead, most of those who did observe the occasion merely took a day off from work and went hunting or sought out sunny street corners to chat with friends about politics and personal reminiscences.

Similarly, in 1873, the Alexandria Gazette in Virginia noted, "The President's Thanksgiving Day was observed here only partially, all the grafts of New England custom upon a Virginia stock having so far found but moderate growth." Banks and federal offices were closed, so those Alexandrians working in the District of Columbia were idle, and a few churches held services, but that was about it.

It wasn't until the end of Republican rule and the return of white supremacy to Southern statehouses that the region fully embraced Thanksgiving. And, once it did, Southerners quickly adopted all the Yankee trappings of the day, part and parcel, including the menu of the traditional Thanksgiving dinner.

As Diana Karter Appelbaum puts it in her history of the holiday, presidents and governors could declare days of Thanksgiving, but "family reunions, pumpkin pies, and turkey dinners were customs that Southerners had to be taught." The editors of newly popular national magazines, most of which were produced in the Northeast, happily stepped up. Each November, publications like Harper's Bazaar, Good Housekeeping, and, of course, Godey's Lady's Book, ran countless "Recipes for Thanksgiving" features, and Southern newspapers were filled with similar columns—many of them nationally syndicated—providing detailed instructions on how to prepare the traditional holiday feast.

Nothing signifies the full adoption of the Yankee mode of Thanksgiving more than Southerners' inclusion of the cranberry among the staples of their feasting table. A fruit not cultivated south of New Jersey, the cranberry was by its very nature an import, arriving by the barrelful on freight cars and steamships, but it is omnipresent in descriptions of late-19th-century Thanksgiving dinners in the South—and it was rarely seen at any other time.

By 1882, the Augusta Chronicle was commenting, "We dare say most of the Thanksgiving will take the form of gastronomic pleasure. Every person who can afford turkey or procure it will sacrifice the noble American fowl to-day." In 1883, the Macon Telegraph grumbled that, "not one out of every thousand people drops on bended knees and offers up thanks in accordance with the proclamation." Instead, "As a general rule, the day is parted in the middle by a turkey and cranberry feast, and those who can afford it may draw the cork from a bottle of claret." The very next year, the same newspaper ran a recipe column, originally from the New York Commercial Advertiser, that provided instructions on how to make turkey with oyster stuffing, cranberry jelly, and pumpkin pie.

In 1890, the Charlotte News observed that, "With each succeeding year, the observance of this day has grown more general until now it is second, as a holiday, only to Christmas....The Thanksgiving dinner, around which the happy household gathers with perhaps a few particular friends as guests, has become typical of the day." Its recommended menu for that meal included oysters, roast turkey with cranberry sauce, sweet potatoes, Irish potatoes, and celery, a formerly exotic vegetable that was then at its height of fashion.

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A Southern Thanksgiving dinner, 1890s-style, from the Knoxville Daily Journal.

Over time, as Southern families created their own Thanksgiving traditions, their favorite regional dishes began sneaking their way onto the holiday table. But the core structure of the meal remained defined by the New England tradition. A visitor from Boston or Hartford would quite likely have felt comfortable with the fare at almost any Southern Thanksgiving dinner.

When my own family gathers in a few weeks in Charlotte, North Carolina, for our annual feast, we'll start the day off roasting oysters on the back patio. I may well serve squares of cornbread with pimento cheese and bacon jam for spreading on top, like I did last year. But these are recent innovations, introduced in just the past decade, and they're merely appetizers and side dishes.

The main meal will be the same as it has been since I was a small child: turkey and dressing, mashed potatoes and gravy, and cranberry sauce (both whole-berry and jelly, to avoid family schisms), along with oyster casserole, creamed onions, and homemade dinner rolls. That's the Southern tradition, after all.