Writers first must pinpoint the setting and then see how the custom with influence the character and if it is worthy of inclusion in the novel. Not every holiday must be mentioned, some can pass silently by, but if it is an important celebration and fits into the timeline it is good to make note of it. Sometimes these can become plot points.
There are many holidays that have been observed throughout the 17th through 19th history. Some are unique to the country or local, such that an American Independence Day would not be celebrated in Britain, nor would the King's Birthday be observed in America after the revolution. Neither would birthdays be celebrated in Puritan New England, or Christmas, for that matter, until later in the 19th century. Yet, you will find the holidays much observed in other colonies and as the frontier expanded west and waves of immigration brought new people to our country, so with it they brought customs of their own.
Here are some things to discover:
Know when it was first celebrated. Do not assume that since we observe a holiday annually now and on a particular date that it has been consistently done so in the past.
Gain a general understanding of the history of the observance by the community at large on a national, regional, local, and family level.
Learn what traditions, foods, music, prayers, fashions, and family members were included in the celebration.
The religious preferences of the characters will shape how the holiday is or if it is observed.
Use the holiday to display opportunities for contrasts, conflicts, marking milestones, displaying setting.
Websters 1828 Dictionary —Thanksgiving - The act of rendering thanks or expressing gratitude for favors or mercies. Every creature of God is good, and nothing to be refused, if received with thanksgiving. 1 Tim. 4.Since we are nearing our annual Thanksgiving holiday, we'll use that as an illustration for digging into its origins which we can apply to any observance we wish to know more about. The more you learn how to dig, the easier it will be to pinpoint the exact information you need. Readers enjoy the accurate portrayal of customs shared in novels and often take it on the word of the author that it is factual. So it is important to be worthy of that trust. Historical documents, historians and biographers, lexicons and encyclopedias, diaries and news accounts, historical societies and museums, and even authors who wrote contemporary to the year of story are valuable sources of discovery.
1. A public celebration of divine goodness; also, a day set apart for religious services, specially to acknowledge the goodness of God, either in any remarkable deliverance from calamities or danger, or in the ordinary dispensation of his bounties. The practice of appointing an annual thanksgiving originated in New England.
This was to be a day of thanksgiving and prayer. There is no mention of great feasts, yet feast there may have been. It was not the first day of thanksgiving and prayer that was sanctioned in the country. It is the author's job to find out what traditions were associated with an important date like this as it relates to their story.
"Thanksgiving In 1630 on February 22nd the first public thanksgiving was held in Boston by the Bay Colony in gratitude for the safe arrival of food bearing and friend bringing ships. On November 4, 1631 Winthrop wrote again, 'We kept thanksgiving day in Boston From that time till 1684. There were at least twenty two public thanksgiving days appointed in Massachusetts about one in two years but it was not a regular biennial. In 1675 a time of deep gloom through the many and widely separated attacks from the fierce savages there was no public thanksgiving celebrated in either Massachusetts or Connecticut.' It is difficult to state when the feast became a fixed annual observance in New England. In the year 1742 were two Thanksgiving Days." — Customs and Fashions in Old New England By Alice Morse Earle
In 1777 a recommendation was made to the thirteen states to set aside Thursday, December 18th that year as a “solemn thanksgiving” in honor of the first major victory of the American Revolution, the Battle of Saratoga, "That at one Time and with one Voice the good People may express the grateful Feelings of their Hearts, and consecrate themselves to the Service of their Divine Benefactor."
Annual celebration begins in 1863 — In 1827, novelist and editor of editor Godey’s Lady’s Book, Sarah Josepha Hale, campaigned to reinstate the Thanksgiving and publicly petitioned several Presidents to make it an annual event. Finally, in 1863, she convinced President Lincoln that a national Thanksgiving might serve to unite a war-torn country. The President declared two national Thanksgivings that year, one for August 6 celebrating the victory at Gettysburg and a second for the last Thursday in November. His October 3, 1863 Proclamation of Thanksgiving read: "I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens."
Last Thursday of November fixed — The traditional last-Thursday of November date for the holiday began in 1942, per a joint resolution fixed by Congress the previous year. Through the year, the originally solemn day of prayer/fasting and thanksgiving/feasting has transformed into a recreational family holiday far different than what our colonial ancestors observed. By the1890s the first high school football rivalries were played on Thanksgiving and have continued since. Also in the late 19th century people in New York City would dress up costumes and roam the streets in merry-making mobs, called "ragamuffin parades". This tradition ended in the 1950's. The first Macy's Day Parade was on November 27, 1924 and continues to this day. During the Depression things were different which you can read about here. However, there are some things that have remained: prayers of thanks, traditional food, and the fellowship of family and friends.
FACT: Benjamin Franklin was in favor of making Turkey the national Bird, instead of Bald Eagle, calling it more respectable.
Food for thought. . .what's cooking in your century?
Turkey, venison, lobster, fish, corn, potatoes, cranberries, pumpkin, squash, gravy, apple pie, cider, fruit, cheese
- What food not listed would a character have added to a menu according to your story setting?
- What food would a character not have eaten prior to 1838?
- Which food would or would not typically have been eaten in 1620, 1771, 1863, 1941?
- Would the meat have been roasted or boiled? Food cooked over an open fire or on a coal or gas stove?
- What is a pudding, a pye, a cake? Do those terms mean the same in the 17th - 19th centuries?
- What do the foods smell like?
- What beverage would be served?
- Who is doing the hunting or shopping? Cooking and serving? Offering the blessing?
"I guess I shall have but little time for journalising till after thanksgiving. My aunt Deming says I shall make one pye myself at least. I hope somebody beside myself will like to eat a bit of my Boston pye. . ."
— Diary of Anna Green Winslow, Boston schoolgirl, November, 1771
What Thanksgiving traditions do you celebrate?
Have you read about a Thanksgiving in a novel?
O my God,
Thou fairest, greatest, first of all objects,
my heart admired, adores, loves thee,
for my little vessel is as full as it can be,
and I would pour out all that fullness before thee
in ceaseless flow.
~ From a Puritan Prayer of Thanksgiving
18th & 19th Century Thanksgiving Cookbook
History of Thanksgiving from Plymouth Plantation
Holidays Celebrated in Colonial America
Thanksgiving in North America: From Local Harvests to National Holiday - Smithsonian
An Old Fashioned Thanksgiving by Louisa May Alcott
Carla Olson Gade is the author of Pattern for Romance, The Shadow Catcher's Daughter, and novellas featured in Mistletoe Memories and Colonial Courtships. Her short story "Upon a Christmas Tree Schooner" can be found in Guidepost Books, A Cup of Christmas Cheer. She enjoys genealogy, graphic , design, photography, and all things historical. Carla shares her writing journey at Adventures of the Heart.