It’s often posited that how a President and his family live in the White House not only reflects contemporary Pop Culture but that news about otherwise mundane details of their choices can often lead the nation’s people towards or away from a particular trend.
In the case of Thanksgiving, the influence of Presidents was first and foremost a matter of establishing it as an official holiday; then, the fact that they, First Ladies and their families chose to celebrate it in the nation’s house, the White House, helped establish its celebration as a national custom. Along the way, matters of regionalism, war, and separation of church and state either impeded or accelerated the uniformity of its acceptance across the country.
Modern perception of the holiday as being a continuous annual tradition begun in 1621 by the survivors who had come to North America from Europe on the Mayflower during their first November is an understandable error. There was a feast, shared with Native Americans, held for the religious purpose of thanking God for the blessing of survival and an abundant first harvest.
Not until later in that century was it annually held among Pilgrim descendants in the Massachusetts colony, celebrated as “Forefathers Day,” not in November but on December 22, the date of the Mayflower landing.
The first President to issue a national Thanksgiving proclamation for November 26, 1789 was the first President, George Washington, but it failed to set a precedent.
As Mayflower descendants and residents of Massachusetts, the second President John Adams, and his son, the sixth President, both celebrated “Forefather’s Day,” firmly established as a regional holiday but neither issued national proclamations for the rest of the states to set aside the day for a similar feast.
The fact that the Adams clan also ate pumpkin pie was not a matter of public disclosure – or interest.
Third President, the Virginian Thomas Jefferson considered the issuance of such official edicts for national reflection to be a “monarchical practice” and while his friend and fellow Virginian, the fourth President James Madison did issue a November day of thanksgiving in 1815, but it was to mark the end of the War of 1812.
Not only did “the people’s president” Andrew Jackson of Tennessee not issue a Thanksgiving Day proclamation, but he was outraged at the very suggestion that he do so, considering it a violation of the “constitutional separation of church and state.”
His reaction only further prompted one Yankee working woman by the name of Sarah Josepha Hale. A native of New Hampshire and the editor of the popular Godey’s Lady Book, which was fast becoming the nation’s most influential publication among women, she soon began a crusade to make Thanksgiving an official, national holiday.
It was ironic that Jackson so strongly opposed Thanksgiving for it was his anointed political heir, a fellow Tennessean even nicknamed “Young Hickory” after him who became the first President to be documented as hosting a Thanksgiving Day dinner in the White House, perhaps being influenced by his well-read wife Sarah Polk.
Serving as her husband’s private secretary it is almost certain she would have first read the letter Sarah Hale sent to the President, lobbying him to make the holiday official.
Perhaps out of regional sensitivity towards their fellow southerners yet in support of the concept, James Polk did not make the holiday official but Sarah Polk did symbolically mark the day in 1845 when she “had some friends to dinner.” The fact that Jackson had died five months earlier may not have been coincidental to the couple defying his principled opposition to the holiday.
“This new idea of Thanksgiving in Washington,” a local editorial stated after word circulated about the incident, “was well observed and gave to the deduction thaet it will be an annual custom hereafter.”
With the rising movement to abolish slavery being challenged on the premise of state rights, Polk’s successor Zachary Taylor chose to ignore Sarah Hale’s ongoing campaign for Thanksgiving on the premise that it would be imposing a federal standard on individual states.
Within the context of the Civil War and President Abraham Lincoln‘s use of symbolic gestures to enforce the concept of unifying the North and South, Thanksgiving got some momentum. In 1863 he issued three separate thanksgiving proclamations, the second of which, on October 3, was a declaration for a “national Thanksgiving Day” to be celebrated on the last Thursday in November.
None of Lincoln’s successors let his precedent lapse. In fact, the President and Mrs. Grant and their four children. hoping to help popularize the holiday, announced plans about how they would celebrate Thanksgiving in the White House.
A reporter at the time observed 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.”
New controversy about Thanksgiving in the White House, however, was quick to rise.
While it was alleged that wild turkey had been served at the first such event in 1621, it was also true that oysters, fish and other New England specialties had been consumed. First Families felt free to enjoy other viands on the holiday.
The Hayes family, according to the President’s diary, not only served three turkeys but also a roast suckling pig.
It was the way that First Lady Caroline Harrison had her White House Thanksgiving turkeys “prepared” while still alive, however, that generated criticism from one powerful constituency.
On each of the last three days of the Harrison turkeys’ lives, the First Lady’s recipe called for a unique type of marination: an English walnut and a slug of sherry were shoved down their throats. It allegedly gave the fowl a uniquely nutty flavor.
Mrs. Harrison shared her recipe with the wife of Supreme Court Justice Stephen J. Field who then excitedly printed it. It led to a wave of “angry letters from temperance women,” the driving force of the growing and politically powerful Prohibition movement.
Until at least the days of President McKinley, there has been the gift of a free bird provided to the White House by one self-described “king of turkey” or another, seeking to garner national publicity.
In the case of the McKinleys, the live bird was accepted and killed, quietly making its way to the First Family’s holiday table.
McKinley’s successor Theodore Roosevelt encountered some unwanted publicity when he accepted the first live bird presented to a President by the turkey farmers’ lobby.
Brought to the White House lawn, the bird promptly escaped from its pen and ran wildly about.
Alerted to this, the young First Sons Quentin and Archie Roosevelt came out with hatchets in hand and began to swing wildly at the bird, chasing it until it ran confused towards its pen and was pushed back in. The President found it all comical, some claiming he goaded the boys, and was seen laughing.
Several newspapers did not find the family’s behavior funny at all, but rather an outrageous example of animal cruelty.
It was also presented in stark contrast to the story of sensitive Tad Lincoln who cried when he learned that a turkey he called “Tom” was slated to be killed for dinner – and insisted that his father the President issue the first known pardon of a turkey.
The fact that Roosevelt was also famous for his hunting of many other animals, and not for use as food but to have their heads mounted on the walls of the State Dining Room, only furthered the perception of him as a heartless killer.
One political cartoonist finally found a chance for payback by depicting President Roosevelt as the killed turkey about to be consumed by greedy politicians and captains of industry. Critics of his turkey-hunting, however, ignored the obvious fact that anyone who ate any type of animal meat was complicit on their own end as well.
It was another Roosevelt, husband of Teddy’s niece Eleanor, who created the greatest presidential firestorm over Thanksgiving.
Franklin D. Roosevelt loved the holiday, especially because it gave him an annual chance to demonstrate before a large crowd his ability to carve every last bit of meat off the bird. He was so meticulous and took so much time that Eleanor Roosevelt finally got into the habit of ordering a second turkey carved and served to hungry guests while he worked on his.
On the last day of October in 1939, however, he issued his annual Thanksgiving Day proclamation ahead of schedule that seemed to traditionalists to be more like an edict. It was an attempt to move the4 date of the holiday from the last Thursday in November to the fourth.
As it happened that year, the last Thursday of the month was on the final day of the month, November 30. From the viewpoint of merchants it cut too close to Christmas and they urged the President to move it up a week to lengthen the holiday shopping season.
Many governors were indignant and took advantage of a clause that let them decide what day to set aside for the holiday. Six New England states, feeling tradition was more important than shopping, stuck to November 30, as did seventeen other states. The day Roosevelt had declared was observed in twenty-two other states while Texas, Colorado and Mississippi let their citizens chose which Thursday to use for the holiday technically becoming states with two Thanksgivings that year.
Finally, in 1941, Congress by joint resolution established the fourth Thursday in November as the officially national holiday, where it has remained.
The one dozen Presidential families since then have celebrated in a generally traditional fashion, with a few notable variations.
The Eisenhowers spent their first two presidential Thanksgivings at their Augusta, Georgia cottage where the President hunted quail, used for some of the quail hash he enjoyed and his wife introduced a lighter version of the traditional pie, known as “Pumpkin Chiffon Pie.”
Here is the link to the Eisenhower Pumpkin Pie recipe, as well as those of the Adamses, the Andrew Johnsons and the Reagans: https://carlanthonyonline.com/2011/11/20/the-four-best-presidential-pumpkin-pies-from-the-first-adams-and-johnson-ike-reagan/
The Kennedys celebrated closer to the site of the first such event in 1621, at their family’s summer compound in Massachusetts.
The LBJs spent many of their presidential years at their Texas ranch, the Reagans at their California ranch.
The Carters were the first to spend it overseas, on a state trip to Nigeria, George and Barbara Bush joined Gulf War troops stationed in Kuwait, and George W. Bush traveled to Iraq to join and to serve U.S. troops.
Perhaps the most unique White House Thanksgiving in the last half-century was hosted in 1969 by the Nixon family who invited about one hundred residents of a retirement home for elderly residents.
Here is a gallery of First Familes from the Trumans to the Obamas celebrating Thanksgiving:
- Thanksgiving: An All-American holiday (constitutioncenter.org)
- Sarah Hale: “Godmother of Thanksgiving” (lifereference.wordpress.com)
- Talking Turkey (And Pie) In ‘Thanksgiving’ (npr.org)
- Adversity Births Thanksgiving. (greatriversofhope.wordpress.com)
- Wampanoag Get Down On Your Knees (mockingbard.com)
- Vegan Thanksgiving, Part 1: Turkeys, Marketing, and Tradition Invention (eatdrinkbetter.com)
- White House Turkey Day: Eat the Kale, Then Pass the Pie (usnews.com)
- Turkey pardon: Obama set to pardon Virginia turkey (wjla.com)
- PETA: “Let the Turkeys Give Thanks!” (thebrennerbrief.com)