Thanksgiving in Kentucky

From THE KENTUCKY GAZETTE - used by permission

Early Thanksgivings included eel pies, corn

In Kentucky, holiday designated by churches, as well as the Commonwealth
By Ron D. Bryant Gazette contributing writer

With the official holiday season beginning with the celebration of Thanksgiving, it is interesting to note just how the celebration got started in Kentucky and in the nation and how politics played an important part in perpetuating this most American of holidays.

The history of Thanksgiving goes back much farther than the Pilgrims at Plymouth, although that particular celebration is the most direct ancestor of our present holiday. The ancient Hebrews celebrated a fixed day of thanksgiving associated with their Feast of Tabernacles (Deuteronomy 16: 13). This feast involved a seven-day observance in honor of the harvest of grain and wine.

The ancient Greeks and Romans also commemorated a thanksgiving period. The Greeks celebrated the Feast of Demeter, the goddess of cornfields and harvest. For nine days the Greeks would give thanks for the bounty of the land with sacrifices of fruit, honey, milk and wine.

The Romans set aside a similar number of feast days of thanksgiving and rejoicing called Cerelia.

During the Middle Ages, days of thanksgiving were observed throughout Europe. Victory in war, deliverance from famine and pestilence, all were marked by solemn, or at times, boisterous celebrations.

When the Spanish Armada was defeated in 1588, Queen Elizabeth I proclaimed a day of thanksgiving. When Guy Fawkes and his infamous "gunpowder plot" to blow up the Houses of Parliament and King James I were discovered, England declared a day of thanksgiving for the preservation of their King and government. Forms of thanksgiving are known throughout the world.


Even in faraway Thailand there is a type of thanksgiving day called the "Swing Festiva1." The people of Thailand give thanks for the land and its produce and the happiness of the nation's inhabitants.

Thanksgiving as Americans know it is a part of our colonial heritage. Most school children can recite the story of the first Thanksgiving proclaimed by the Pilgrims on Dec. 13, 1621.

The Pilgrims, or Separatists from the Church of England, had made a dangerous voyage from Plymouth, England, in September 1620. Of the 102 passengers aboard the Mayflower, forty-six had died within the first year of settlement.


Those who survived the rigors of the first year in New England were thankful for their survival and for the harvest of twenty acres of corn and six acres of barley and peas.

The local Indians, instead of attacking the Pilgrims, had befriended them and taught the Pilgrims how to plant and fertilize crops in the rocky New England soil. Game was plentiful in the forests and there were fresh sources of clear, cold water to drink. The Pilgrims felt a great deal of thanks for their survival.

The first Thanksgiving was attended by the surviving Pilgrims, Chief Massasoit, and ninety of his Wampanoag warriors. In reality this "Thanksgiving Day" was a harvest celebration. The Pilgrims were outnumbered two to one, but on this day only a joyful feast took place. The Indians brought five deer, and Gov. William Bradford sent out four hunters to kill a number of wild fowls (wild turkey was probably included but not that popular). Pumpkins were made into pies and puddings, and corn was included as a staple part of both the Indian and Pilgrim diet. Corn was one of the reasons that the Pilgrims were giving thanks. Without this grain, the Pilgrims could have perished. One of the most popular dishes was an old English favorite, eel pies. To the Pilgrims this was a delicacy indeed.

The Puritans who followed the Pilgrims to Massachusetts also celebrated a thanksgiving day. A day of public thanksgiving was held in Boston on Feb. 22, 1630 for the safe arrival of supplies and more Puritans from England. Between 1630 and 1680, some twenty thanksgivings were observed. In 1742, two thanksgivings were celebrated. One reason that the idea of a thanksgiving appealed to the Puritans was their dislike of Christmas. The Puritans wanted a day to replace the "popish" holiday of Christmas and all of its idolatrous connotations. The Puritans would eat food from "God's bounty" (simple foodstuffs) rather than the "superstitious meats and plum pudding" of the Christmas season. (Later, when the Puritan influence began to wane, the old traditions of Christmas were revived).


After the close of the American Revolution and with the adoption of the Constitution in 1789, a day of national thanksgiving was established. President George Washington proclaimed that Nov. 26 was to be a day of "national Thanksgiving". This observance did not last, however, and one by one the states began to celebrate thanksgiving days at different times of the year. Pres. James Madison proclaimed a day in 1815. After 1830 many northern states observed an official Thanksgiving Day. But in the South the observance of Thanksgiving in some of those states was not until after 1855.

The spread of a national observance of Thanksgiving was due in part to the efforts of Sarah Hale who wrote an article in Godey's ladies magazine during the 1850s, urging the governors of each state to set one date for a national Thanksgiving Day.


Kentucky religious denominations as well as the state government observed days of thanksgiving for various reasons. The Presbyterian Churches in Kentucky proclaimed Nov. 17, 1827 as a day of "thanksgiving, humiliation and prayer." However, Gov. Robert Perkins Letcher (1788-1861), who was governor from 1840-1844, declared Sep. 26, 1844 as a day of "prayer, praise and thanksgiving". This was the first official thanksgiving in Kentucky. Letcher went on to say in his proclamation that,"in obedience to a proper and becoming sense of gratitude due from a favored people from the Almighty Ruler of the Universe, I do hereby designate and appoint Thursday, he 26th day of September next, which I exhort the people of this Commonwealth to set apart, observe, and keep holy as a day of prayer, praise and thanksgiving to the Great Dispenser of all good for the rich and abundant blessings of the past and present year."


Not to be outdone, Gov. William Owsley (1782-1862), who was governor 1844-1848, set aside Nov. 20, 1846 as a "day of thanksgiving." In 1864, President Abraham Lincoln appointed a "day of thanks giving" to be set aside on the fourth Thursday of November as the day of observance. This is the beginning of the modern Thanksgiving holiday.

Gov. Thomas E. Bramlette (1817-1875), Kentucky governor from 1863 to 1867, modified Lincoln's Thanksgiving Day to Nov. 16. In 1870 Preston H. Leslie as speaker of the Kentucky senate declared Thursday, Nov. 24 "as a day of solemn public Thanksgiving."

Many old and rather unusual customs are associated with Thanksgiving. The Indians, during the first Thanksgiving, entertained the Pilgrims with dances and feats of marksmanship with their weapons. Other customs and games were incorporated into the holiday. Pumpkin races were held in which pumpkins were rolled over the ground with wooden spoons. The corn game was also a popular Thanksgiving pastime. Five ears of corn were hidden in a room. The five people to find the corn would be the contestants in the corn game. The purpose of the game was to see who could remove the kernels of corn as fast as one could. The one who finished first was the winner. Also, as with most Kentucky holidays the display of marksmanship was part of the festivities.

While the politicians on the national and state levels have made Thanksgiving a day of political importance (as late as the presidency of Franklin Roosevelt the Thanksgiving Day was moved to Nov. 23 n 1939 for a longer Christmas shopping season), Thanksgiving remains one of the most beloved of American holidays. In Kentucky, as with the rest of the Union, thousands of people come home to celebrate a time of good food and good company and to give thanks for all that America and its freedoms mean to them.

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