Thanksgiving, like many of our holidays has origins in European history. In almost every culture, there has been some sort of harvest or year end celebration. The famous Oktoberfest or Bavarian beer festival is a part of Erntedankfest, held in early October. In bygone times Celtic Britain’s year ended October 31st, and marked not only the harvest, but also the time things died. A celebration was held then that has since become Halloween. Our national holiday of Thanksgiving commemorates the time when the pilgrims of Plymouth Colony celebrated with the Wampanoag Indians a week of feasting and socializing. The Native Americans had helped feed the colony and ensured the survival of these strangers. From that first Thanksgiving onward, the commemoration had been held but on different days in different states. On October 1st, 1863, at Abraham Lincoln’s direction, Secretary of State Seward drafted the official proclamation making the last Thursday in November a National day of Thanksgiving.
Since Thanksgiving became a national holiday, it has been celebrated sometimes indifferently in rural communities like Meade County. Thanksgiving was celebrated in cities and towns, by a day off work to visit, feast, and give thanks to God, with family and friends. In the farming communities the day was looked forward to, but often went uncelebrated except for a little more festive meal more appropriate for a Sunday. Life on the farm meant work needed to be done every day, even on Sundays. Livestock had to be fed, wood carried, and water drawn just to stay alive. More often if there was a day of leisure, it was Sunday. Any Thursday was just another day. If a farmer had a day job, Thanksgiving Day was used to strip tobacco, or to catch up on the maintenance of farm equipment, although a more festive table was set.
As time went on, and particularly after WWII ended and soldiers returned home, Thanksgiving became more of a celebration on the farm. Several farming traditions built up around Thanksgiving. One of those traditions became the first rabbit hunt of the year. When I was a boy, Opening day of rabbit season began on Thanksgiving Day, and the men would get to the farm Thanksgiving Eve, or early Thursday morning in time for a breakfast of homemade jams and jellies, biscuits, gravy, slab bacon, eggs, sausage, and hot coffee. The mornings were crisp and clear and with double barrel, single shot, bolt action, and pump shotguns the men, boys, and dogs took to the fields. As a boy there was nothing headier than to tag along and listen to the men tell stories about their dogs and past hunts. It was the way boys learned how to mix with men and learn the ways of men. At such times the boys would seldom speak unless asked a question, but would laugh as loud and as enthusiastically as any of the men when a funny story was told. In those precious times family lore was learned and passed on to the boys by the stories told by the men, only to be repeated verbatim by the boys as men, in years yet to come when they passed them on to their sons and grandsons.
Thanksgiving was not just for the men and boys, the women folk and girls socialized in much the same way. In those days it seemed easier to know where you belonged, your purpose in life, and to be comfortable in your own skin. Men did the jobs that needed to be done and that could not be done while rearing children. Women did those things that could be done while rearing a child. Most of these activities took place in and around the house. The division of labor was decided along those lines, and the men and women respected each other for what they did. There was no women’s work or men’s work. Each did what they knew how to do, and had to do, to make a decent life on the farm. Skills like sewing, knitting, crocheting, and quilting that would serve the girls as homemakers were taught at an early age. Preparing and preserving food, feeding the family, raising the children and keeping the household was the province of the farm wife. The girls helped the women and learned their ways every bit as much as the boys learned from their fathers and grandfathers. The family lore of the pioneer women and their redoubtable courage, perseverance, and independence, were passed on to and instilled in the girls. Thanksgiving then became a family reunion of sorts. The meal would be ready to put on the table, perfectly set by the girls. It didn’t matter that all the plates and silverware didn’t match or that a few people had a Mason jar from which to drink. Company got the good glass. Special platters or bowls that had been handed down in the family would be proudly used. Stories would be told about the women who owned them and what they had cooked and placed in them. Many times those same dishes were in them again. Thus Thanksgiving traditions were born.
The hunting party would return about noon and clean the catch of the day. Rabbit would be fried, a turkey stuffed with cornbread dressing might be roasting in the stove, but more often a chicken, green beans, mashed potatoes and sweet potatoes would be on the table. Sausage, and bacon left from the morning would be warmed over and set out. Biscuits and cornbread would be baked, and there would be no dearth of deserts like pumpkin, sweet-potato, and maybe a pecan or hickory nut pie would be warming. Coffee, water, and maybe tea would be drunk and this would likely be the only meal of the year where cranberries were served. The men, their wives, friends and family would sit down together, say grace, and dig in to a meal fit for the governor. A special table would be set for the children, and it was a rite of passage when on a given Thanksgiving a child was deemed old enough to be seated with the adults. After the meal the men would pitch in and take care of the chores, while the women did the dishes covering the food laden table with a tablecloth, keeping away the last flies of the year. Those men that had to work on Friday left for the long drive home, while others would sleep over to hunt on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday morning before returning homeward. Thanksgiving then became a time for family and bonding relationships between friends and relatives. It was a time for giving thanks to God, sharing, and remembering. Thanksgiving then, was not at all unlike a special Sunday. On reflection, the spirit of Thanksgiving was really celebrated in Meade County every week on Sundays. Sunday, after giving thanks in church, less work was done, more recreation and visiting happened, and the special meal was on the table to be shared by those that might drop by. The spirit of Thanksgiving was expressed 53 days a year on Meade County farms. It was celebrated on 52 Sundays and one special Thursday. I kind of miss those times. Have a happy and safe Thanksgiving.
Shirley Brown’s dad, Sherley Vandiver, was born Feb. 24, 1913 and died Thanksgiving Day, Nov. 27, 1969. 22 years later his great grandson T.J. Carver was born on Nov. 27th. This year Thanksgiving is on Nov 27th again.
Thanksgiving in Meade County and in fact Kentucky, was a sparsely celebrated day. Part of the reason for that is that there were various dates set by individual states to commemorate the first Thanksgiving celebrated by the pilgrims at the Plymouth Bay Colony in Massachusetts.