November 26, 1851

Rolling pin

Wedns Nov 26th  Have heat the brick oven three times

to day  Made Squash mince & apple pies

fruit & plain cake & seed cakes  did not

get the last oven in untill about four Oclock

Jane has assisted some about the work  Dr Swan

came to see her says she must exercise but

must not work hard  Oliver came home in the stage

The kitchen was humming today. Evelina baked pies and cakes to feed her family, now back at the full complement of six at table, as Oliver (3) arrived home from college for the holiday. She baked pies and maybe some side dishes to take to the other part of the house, where they would have Thanksgiving dinner the next day with Old Oliver, Sarah Witherell, and Sarah’s children, George and Emily. Jane McHanna “assisted some,” but was still sick enough to have a visit from the doctor – this time, the Ames’s personal physician, Caleb Swan.

In 1851, Thanksgiving was not yet a national holiday. That would happen in 1863, after lobbying by the indefatigable Sarah Josepha Hale convinced Abraham Lincoln to make an institution of a feast that was already celebrated in many – but not all – states. Although the country was suffering from the shock and carnage of a civil war, Lincoln saw good in the idea of a day of gratitude for “fruitful fields and healthful skies”** and, by Executive Order, proclaimed the last Thursday in November as a national Day of Thanksgiving, in perpetuity.

The tradition of Thanksgiving evolved from the Puritan practice of holding days of thanksgiving or fasting, according to immediate need. The Puritans were inclined to see God’s influence in every part of their daily lives. When they were good, God would reward them. When they were bad, He would punish them. Depending on how things were going, their ministers were either making sure to thank God or beg for help. In the 17th century, a local congregation could call for a day of thanksgiving or a day of fasting on its own. As time went on, the practice became more formal and by the 19th century, governors, at least in New England, would call for a day of fasting in the spring (before the planting) and a day of thanksgiving in the autumn (after the harvest). In 1851, this was still how it was done.

Toward the end of the 19th century, as immigration began to influence and de-homogenize American culture, some of the old guard became concerned. Like many an established group, its members wanted to preserve their culture and honor traditions such as Thanksgiving.  The fourth Thursday in November became more than just a feast of gratitude with family members. It became a post-Civil War symbol of America’s beginning, an annual celebration that would help new immigrants understand how the country was first settled by white Europeans. Teaching about the holiday in schools became a priority and thus, for more than a century, an account of a first Thanksgiving feast between the Pilgrims and the Indians has become an indelible, if occasionally controversial, feature of American history.

For Evelina and her family, Thanksgiving was the most important holiday of the year. They would celebrate it with Yankee gusto, which generally meant a gathering of family and a fine feast followed by a game of cards for the old folks and perhaps a dance for the young people.

* A wealth of information about Thanksgiving can be found in “Thanksgiving: A Biography” by James W. Baker, New Hampshire, 2009. 

** Abraham Lincoln, A Proclamation, October 3, 1863

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