Creating Thanksgiving

President Abraham Lincoln decreed Thanksgiving as a national holiday in September 1863, following Union victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg. Prior to that, the observance was sporadically celebrated, mainly in the American North, as a day of feasting and merriment after the autumnal harvests. Sectionalism between North and South had risen decades before the Civil War—and in 1846 Sarah Josepha Hale, editress of the popular Godey’s Ladies Book magazine, began campaigning for a unifying “national festival observed by all the people as an exponent of our national virtues.” Her idea of an ideal feast included our still familiar roast turkey with all the trimmings—and a chicken pie, which has disappeared from modern menus. Before Lincoln’s decree, a holiday feast day was left to the discretion of individual state governors. California, ceded to the United States by Mexico in 1848, was not yet a state in 1849 when military governor General Bennett Riley proclaimed a day of Thanksgiving that November, during the turbulence of the Gold Rush. It is unlikely that very many gold rushers abandoned their prospecting to sit down to a groaning table.

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