Thursday, November 25, 2010


Southerners had good reasons for not
taking to the Thanksgiving holiday
right away.
By Mike Jones
It wasn't until well until into the 20th Century that some places in the American South really got into the habit of celebrating the Thanksgiving holiday. Why? In the beginning, Thanksgiving had two connections that many southerners found odious, Abraham Lincoln and New England. Many places claim Thanksgiving feasts that predated that of the Pilgrims of Massachusetts in 1621, including Texas, Florida and Virginia. But the modern Thanksgiving, which started in the mid-19th Century, is based on myths and legends that took shape from New England traditions.

Sarah Josepha Hale, editor of the Godey's Ladies Book, began a campaign in 1846 to have the last Thursday in November proclaimed a National patriotic holiday. She wrote every president asking him to proclaim the holiday. It wasn't until President Lincoln took up her plea and proclaimed the fourth Thursday in November 1863 to be Thanksgiving. The problem was, Lincoln at the time was busy sending his Northern armies, including many New Englanders, rampaging through the South, killing hundreds of thousands of Southerners, burning and devastating Southern cities, homes and farms throughout the Confederacy.

Gov. Oran Roberts of Texas
Since Lincoln, every other U.S. president has made an annual Thanksgiving Day proclamation. But the South would have none of it. Lincoln was widely despised in the South, as was New England. The South was beaten down, impoverished and a long way from "getting over it." In 1883, when Gov. Oran Roberts of Texas was asked to proclaim the holiday and said,  “It’s a damned Yankee institution anyway.” And that is exactly how many Southerners felt about it for decades after the war. Roberts had been the colonel of the 11th Texas Infantry in the War For Southern Independence.

An example of that Southern reluctance to celebrate the "Yankee institution" was Lake Charles, Louisiana. A survey of local newspapers there between 1899 and 1917 shows just how reluctant they were to embrace the holiday. Lake Charles had been raided by Yankees during the war, in 1862, its women and children held hostage while Yankee sailors extorted food from the town. Then 10 of their townsmen were made "human shields" on the raider's sloop, while it returned to its blockading ship in the Gulf of Mexico. In addition, many of the town's young men had died in the war, either killed in action, died of disease and wounds, or in Yankee P.O.W. camps.

In most years after the war the local newspapers make no mention at all of the holiday. It was simply ignored. Business as usual was conducted. However early in the 20th Century, a few advertisements started popping up in newspapers featuring Thanksgiving holiday sales. Then every few years, the newspaper would mention that Thanksgiving would be generally observed, contrary to the usual custom of ignoring it. What was prompting the change in attitude? Apparently it was time, good old American advertising, football, and finally pressure tactics.

The Lake Charles Daily American wrote in its edition of Nov. 23, 1904, "Thanksgiving day will probably be more generally observed in Lake Charles than has been customary. Besides the banks and public offices, most of the manufacturies will be shut down and the stores closed in the afternoon."

Not much more was heard about the holiday until the Daily American ran an advertisement on Nov. 25, 1908, "Foot-Ball Game! Thanksgiving/ Lake Charles High School vs. Industrial Institute at Base Ball Park. Admission, Adults 50 cents, school children 25 cents. No extra charge for carriage space." In addition there was a game between the Second Ward Giants vs. the First Ward Tigers, at no extra charge. Now that was something Southerners could get excited about on Thanksgiving.

The next year, Nov. 24, 1909, once again football was the focus of Thanksgiving activities. although church services were also mentioned in the Daily American. The article stated, "Tomorrow is the day when every football lover goes out to the park to see Lake Charles beat Crowley and win championship honors." The writer went on to say, "Mr. Jenkins repudiates the wild statements going around that the players have been feeding on raw beef alone for the last few days, but promises a hot contest anyway. The management will not be responsible for people injured in the rush for tickets, but will transport to the sanitarium anyone overcome with excitement during the game."

But the Nov. 28, 1916 issue of the American Press showed just how reluctant the people of Lake Charles were to really embrace the "Yankee institution." The headline blared, "THURSDAY IS A TRIPLE HOLIDAY, Don't Try to Violate It, Because You Can't. Everybody Must Close Up. Thursday will be a holiday in Lake Charles in a triple sense this year. It will be a religious holiday, in obedience to the President's proclamation, with union services by the protestant pastors of the city at Simpson Methodist church at 10 o'clock, proper observance by the church of the Good Shepherd and high mass of thanksgiving at the church of the Immaculate Conception at 8 o'clock.

"Everybody in Lake Charles may as well prepare for the holiday, for they will be obliged to observe it. . . . It is hoped Lake Charles will enter into the spirit of the occasion, decorate their homes and places of business, and help show the visitors a good time." However there was no mention of a football game, so the day was probably a bust.

The next year, 1917, once again there was no mention in the newspaper of local observances of Thanksgiving. But as time passed, Thanksgiving finally caught on and in 1935, the newspaper notes there were Thanksgiving parties, dinners and celebrations in Lake Charles. In addition, local rice farmers were making big money raising and selling turkeys to the local population.

It had taken a long time, but Southerners finally found things they could get excited about Thanksgiving, namely feasting on turkey and watching football. Southerners have created their own Thanksgiving customs, rather than just accept those of the "Yankee institution." They have also added a Southern-Cajun flair with deep fried turkey, injected with flavorful spices, and invented such things as the "turducken" (a deboned chicken, stuffed in a deboned duck, stuffed in a deboned turkey). The South just seems to make things better and more fun. Happy Thanksgiving!

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