Who could be so un-American, so politically insensitive, so plain silly as to turn a calm and comfortable national holiday like Thanksgiving into a cause for commotion?
Presidents of the United States, that's who.
Nowadays, first-family Thanksgivings are uncontroversial gatherings around tables full of traditional fare. Turkey. Cranberry sauce. Pumpkin pie or, in Mrs. Reagan's case, pecan pumpkin pie. But Thanksgiving, that gentlest of celebrations, the holiday that O. Henry described as the only "purely American" one, had some rough beginnings at the White House.
For generations after the Pilgrims founded Plymouth Colony in 1620, sons of Massachusetts commemorated "Forefathers' Day" on Dec. 22 -- the date of the landing. It was an annual New England ritual through most of the 17th and 18th centuries; in 1644, it was even celebrated in the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam with pigs roasting on spits in the streets.
But it was a Virginian, President George Washington, who issued the first Thanksgiving proclamation to the whole of the infant nation. He made it at the request of both houses of the first Congress, on Oct. 3, 1789, just a bit more than five months after his inauguration.
Washington knew, of course, that English settlers had arrived in his own state of Virginia more than a decade before those at Plymouth, but he made no mention of that fact, or indeed of the long-established New England "forefathers" feasting tradition. Instead, his message was a carefully framed proposal for a day to give thanks to God for "the favorable interpositions of His providence, which we experienced in the course and conclusion of the late war," and for "civil and religious liberty ... the means we have of acquiring and diffusing useful knowledge ... and the increase of science." The day he suggested was Thursday, Nov. 26.
There was resistance to the idea from some who thought the proclamation too religious, or too influenced by Yankees. Rep. Thomas Tucker Tudor of South Carolina strongly opposed the proposal on the grounds that the American people, so newly joined in a federal union, "may not be inclined to return thanks for a Constitution until they have experienced that it promotes their happiness and safety."
John Adams, a descendant of New England colonists and the first president to live in the White House, took up residence there in November 1800, and with his wife Abigail probably observed Forefathers' Day on Dec. 22d of that year, rather than a November Thanksgiving. In any event, the Adamses had enough to worry about, what with trying to live in the uncompleted Executive Mansion while at the same time being prepared to leave it three months later should Thomas Jefferson be elected president.
Jefferson was, and he steadfastly refused to issue any Thanksgiving declarations during his eight years as president on the grounds that proclamation of such an observance was "a monarchial practice." After all, Washington and Adams had been Federalists, and to Jefferson that meant trappings of royalty. His successor, fellow Virginian James Madison, followed Jefferson's example until he had to deal with the War of 1812 and the burning of Washington by the British in 1814. By the time peace came in 1815, a weary Madison was willing to offer up thanks, and he issued a proclamation late that year. In November.
Official observance of Thanksgiving days, however, lapsed during the next several administrations of the early 19th century. In fact, the notion was rejected outright by Andrew Jackson, "the people's president" and hero of the late war, as a violation of "the constitutional separation of church and state."
But while presidents in Washington continued to ignore the idea, up in New England there was an angry woman who refused to. Sarah Josepha Hale, a New Hampshire native and editor of the widely circulated monthly magazine, Godey's Lady's Book, was appalled that presidents would not declare an annual day of national thanksgiving. Every fall from the early 1840s on, in perhaps the first direct-mail campaign, she argued the cause in a deluge of angry letters to the president, to the first lady, to congressmen and governors. "Our Thanksgiving Day," she crusaded, "should be hallowed and exalted and made the day of generous deeds and innocent enjoyments."
The 11th president, James Knox Polk, thought so, too, or at least his wife did, and that amounted to the same thing. Sarah Polk, prim and unflinchingly Presbyterian, banned hard liquor, dancing and card-playing from the White House. She also served as her husband's political adviser and secretary, and in that capacity often read his mail. One of the things she read in the fall of 1845 was a letter from Mrs. Hale, and it was shortly afterward that Mrs. Polk arranged the first White House Thanksgiving feast with religious trimmings.
On the fourth Thursday of November 1845, a Washington newspaper noted in an editorial that the Polks "had some friends to dinner," and it seemed that the die was cast. "This new idea of Thanksgiving in Washington," the editorial continued, "was well observed and gave such general satisfaction as to lead to the deduction that it will be an annual custom hereafter."
Wrong. Polk's successor, Zachary Taylor, declined to follow the Polks' example. By this time, it had become the custom of governors to issue thanksgiving proclamations if they wanted their states to observe such a day. Taylor, as did many statesmen of the antebellum era, believed in the maintenance of states' rights, and refused to consider a thanksgiving proclamation because he felt it would impose a federal standard on the individual states.
Sarah Josepha Hale had much to be thankful for from Abraham Lincoln, who in the single critical Civil War year of 1863 issued three separate thanksgiving proclamations. It was the second of these, however, on Oct. 3, that declared a "national Thanksgiving Day" to be celebrated on the last Thursday of November.
Mrs. Hale had continued her lobbying of Xpresidents, and this time she got action that would take hold. As for Lincoln, it suited his political purposes perfectly as a morale booster. Thanks and prayers were due the Almighty, he declared, because "the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere except in the theater of military conflict." He asked for God's intervention in the awful fraternal war, and His help to "heal the wounds of the nation and restore it, as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes."
No succeeding president defied the Great Emancipator's precedent. The immediate successor to the martyred president, Andrew Johnson, continued issuing Thanksgiving Day proclamations for the fourth Thursday in November, and President and Mrs. Ulysses S. Grant set the holiday pace for the city by publicly describing plans for the White House Thanksgiving dinner. A Washington correspondent observed at the time that "the preparations for Thanksgiving Day in the city have been such as to indicate that tomorrow will be more generally observed by the citizens of Washington than ever before. This city, which has followed the practice of the South in making Christmas the great holiday of the year, is responding in this respect more and more to New England influences, so that while Christmas is not less observed, Thanksgiving is much more celebrated than formerly."
By the end of the century, formal White House meals in general and Thanksgiving feasts in particular had turned into multicourse extravanganzas. Although Benjamin Franklin had once suggested the turkey as the national bird, it now truly became so, but only on the dinner table. The question of whether the good bird was actually eaten at that first feast in Plymouth had never been answered, but by the 1890s it was the centerpiece of Washington Thanksgivings. Many congressmen and senators were now staying in town with their families rather than traveling home for the holidays, and it was noted that "the market men are busy laying in vast stocks for their stalls." It was estimated by one reporter of the period that $100,000 was spent in the capital each November on turkeys alone.
In the White House, First Lady Caroline Harrison had a peculiar recipe for premortem marination of the presidential bird. For the last three days of the bird's life, an English walnut and a slug of sherry were shoved down its throat three times daily. It supposedly gave the cooked bird a nutty flavor.
To her regret, Mrs. Harrison shared the recipe with the wife of Supreme Court Justice Stephen J. Field, for when Mrs. Field made it public it prompted a storm of "angry letters from temperance women," who were appalled by the example set for the nation's families.
Teddy Roosevelt's turkey was the first to be presented to the White House by the turkey producers' lobby, and the bird promptly escaped from its pen and ran wildly about the south lawn. With hatchets in hand, the president's children gave chase, swinging their weapons wildly at the confused fowl as it flailed about. Roosevelt thought the scene comical and laughed heartily, but some newspapers thought otherwise and criticized the first family for cruelty to animals.
Some White House Thanksgivings were days of personal gratitude for first family members. In 1922, a quiet dinner was celebrated by President and Mrs. Harding and their close friend, Attorney General Harry Daugherty. Just eight weeks earlier, the nation had joined in prayer when it seemed that Mrs. Harding was about to die from a kidney infection. She had come, as she said, "from the valley of death by sheer will." Though she was confined to a wheelchair, Thanksgiving dinner represented a triumph for her. However, it was the last Thanksgiving Warren Harding would see; he died the next summer, apparently of a stroke, in San Francisco.
Thanksgiving could seem bleak, as well. With the shadow of the Great Depression looming in 1930, Herbert Hoover found parallels between the Pilgrims' hardships and the grim situation he was trying to resolve. With little else to be thankful for, he solemnly issued his proclamation with gratefulness for "the blessing of life itself and the means to sustain it," and asked those Americans who could to "make sure that every person in the community, young and old, should have cause to give thanks for our institutions and for the neighborly sentiment of our people."
Franklin Roosevelt carved a mean turkey. He was so obsessed with personally cutting every shred of meat off a bird -- and labored so long over it -- that his wife Eleanor ordered a second bird to be simultaneously cut and served to guests. But it was for his Thanksgiving message of 1939 that he is chiefly associated with the holiday.
As with much New Deal legislation, the message had an economic agenda, and it sparked the greatest presidential Thanksgiving controversy of all time. On Oct. 31, a week ahead of schedule, he issued a proclamation that seemed to traditionalists more like an edict. It was an attempt to move the date of the holiday from the last Thursday in November to the fourth.
As it happened, the last Thursday in November, 1939, turned out to be Nov. 30, the final day of the month. From the viewpoint of merchants, this was too close to Christmas, and they suggested that the president move it up a week, thereby lengthening the Christmas shopping period.
Roosevelt "believed he was doing more good than harm," but, according to one journalist, there ensued a conflict that caused more hostility "than usually develops during a Presidential campaign." Many governors were indignant and took advantage of a local option clause in the proclamation to decide on what day their states would celebrate. New England governors as a group, declaring that tradition was more important than Christmas shopping, refused to acknowledge the Rooseveltian shift in their six states and stuck with the 30th, as did 17 other states.
FDR's Thanksgiving was observed in 22 states. The governors of Texas, Colorado and Mississippi allowed their citizens to choose the day they'd celebrate, and the three states technically had two Thanksgivings that year. College football plans for Thanksgiving Day games became entangled because different states had different Thanksgivings. Mothers with children in schools in states with different Thanksgiving vacation schedules had to spend successive Thursday mornings in the kitchen.
Two years later, Congress, by joint resolution, established the fourth Thursday in November as the date of Thanksgiving Day, and nobody has dared meddle with it again. Roosevelt himself quietly carved his turkeys on the designated day for the rest of his White House years.
More recently, presidents have taken to celebrating the holiday away from the White House. Ike and Mamie Eisenhower spent their 1953 and 1954 Thanksgivings in Augusta, Ga., where the president was able to shoot a round of golf and some quail before dinner. The meal included the first lady's "pumpkin chiffon pie," a popular 1950s version of the traditional dessert, made with whipped gelatin.
The Kennedys spent 1961 at Cape Cod, a family tradition, and it was actually the closest a president has ever come to celebrating the holiday at the site of the Pilgrims' Thanksgiving. The Johnsons feasted at their Texas ranch on several Thanksgivings, and, in 1977, Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter became the first White House couple to spend it overseas, traveling through Nigeria on the holiday. The Reagans seem to prefer to spend the holiday at home on their California ranch.
Perhaps the most interesting series of Thanksgivings at the modern White House was celebrated during the early Nixon years. In 1969, the Nixons invited several hundred elderly residents of local nursing homes to dinner at the Executive Mansion. One member of the Nixon or Eisenhower clans sat at each table, although President Nixon skipped the bird and dined later upstairs on a meal of cottage cheese and catsup.
The following year, 100 wounded Vietnam servicemen dined with the first family. It was that year, too, that Pat Nixon became the first, and only, first lady to issue her own Thanksgiving message. In it, she recalled that the Pilgrims "experienced their own times of hardship yet were able to find hope amidst their fears," and declared that "Thanksgiving offers all of us the opportunity to reflect upon the positive aspects of our lives."
In 1974, Gerald Ford used the day as an occasion to reunite his high school football team, and one of the former players -- Silas McGee -- informed the press that it wasn't true the president had "played too much football without his helmet." As picketers outside the White House toted signs declaring that the administration had a "lack of concern" about the nation's hungry, the guests in the dining room consumed two turkeys given the Fords, as usual, by the National Turkey Federation. By now, however, technology had merged with tradition. They were the first frozen presidential turkeys.
For private citizens and first families alike, Thanksgiving has evolved from a religious observance into a secular day of reunion and feasting. Those who are ruffled the nation's leaders spending Thanksgiving watching football games on television instead of kneeling in prayer, might consider the lament of a newspaper editorial commenting on the president's Thanksgiving plans.
"Like most customs, Thanksgiving ... has entirely changed its original character. In the nature of things, a practice loses its significance when it becomes a custom ... we have lost something of its purpose and much of its spirit. This was inevitable ... in a generation so much inclined as ours to think lightly of sacred things."
The editorial was written in 1874.
Carl Sferrazza Anthony is the author of the forthcoming book "Ladies First: The Power of the Presidents' Wives."