Ask Rufus: Thanksgiving


By the 1890s holiday sale ads were beginning to appear in Columbus newspapers at Thanksgiving. This is an 1882 advertising card from Richards & Teasdale's on Main Street in Columbus letting shoppers know they had

By the 1890s holiday sale ads were beginning to appear in Columbus newspapers at Thanksgiving. This is an 1882 advertising card from Richards & Teasdale's on Main Street in Columbus letting shoppers know they had "Toys, Fancy Goods, &c." for holiday and wedding presents. Photo by: Courtesy image


Rufus Ward



It was 400 years ago that a group of settlers from England landed in the New Word and with a ceremony of thanksgiving gave thanks to God for their safe arrival and their new settlement. That ceremony of thanksgiving had been set out in the company's charter from London. It provided, "that the day of our ship's arrival at the place assigned ... shall be yearly and perpetually kept holy as a day of thanksgiving to Almighty God." That first officially designated Thanksgiving Day occurred 400 years ago on Dec. 4, 1619.


That day of thanksgiving was not at the Plymouth Colony in present day Massachusetts. The Pilgrims day of thanksgiving did not occur until 1621. This thanksgiving in 1619 occurred at Berkeley Hundred in present day Charles City County, Virginia.


President George Washington had first called for "a Day of Publick Thanksgiving" to be held on Nov. 26, 1789, but it was up to individual states to decide whether to celebrate it and, if so, on what day. In the early 1800s, the date of Thanksgiving Day was usually set by the governor of each state, but by the 1850s many states were establishing a set date. The celebration of Thanksgiving in Mississippi in the in mid-1800s remained at the whim of the governor.



On Oct. 9, 1852, the Columbus Democrat reported that Gov. Foote of Mississippi had issued the following proclamation:



Proclamation executive


In conformity with the earnest request of many pious and worthy citizens and in accordance with my own sense of official duty, I have the honor to recommend to the good people of the State of Mississippi, that, 'in acknowledgment of the kindly fruits of the earth which fill our fields, and are fast ripening for the harvest,' as well as in consideration of the general prosperity and happiness vouchsafed to us, they do recognize the Second Thursday in November ... as a suitable day for the rendition of a public thanksgiving to Almighty God for all these signal blessings.


H.S. Foote



By 1853, 25 of the then 31 states had established a set date for Thanksgiving.


In 1863, Abraham Lincoln declared that the last Thursday in November be set aside as a national day of Thanksgiving. In order to add a week to the Christmas shopping season President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1938 moved the date back to the second to last Thursday in November. Then in 1942 he compromised and set the date as the fourth Thursday in November. It has since remained that date.


The oldest Thanksgiving tradition is as a day of prayer and giving thanks to God. The next oldest tradition is food. Thanksgiving has always been celebrated with a feast. In Columbus the oldest tradition of Thanksgiving related to food is oysters. It was usually mid to late November before the Tombigbee became high enough for steamboats to travel upstream from Mobile to Columbus and Aberdeen. It was also then that it usually became cool enough for the steamboats to bring up sacks of fresh oysters from Mobile.


With fresh oysters beginning to arrive mid-November to December, they became a traditional Thanksgiving and Christmas food along the Tombigbee River. It is common to find lots of oyster shells on old Columbus house sites dating as far back as the 1820s. By the late 1800s the quantity of oysters brought into Columbus by steamboat was so large that the city began using the discarded oyster shells to fill potholes in the city streets. Many people still think of oysters as a traditional holiday dish, especially oyster dressing.


The earliest Columbus recipe related to thanksgiving I have found is in an 1867 cookbook of Sallie Govan Billups. It was interesting, though, that none of the pre-1890 family cookbooks I have contained a recipe for oyster dressing, but all had Oyster Sauce. In Sallie's 1867 copy of "Verstille's Southern Cookery," the recipe for Oyster Sauce was: "Have your oysters good, and give them one boil in their own liquor. Then take the oysters out, and add to the liquor two or three blades of mace, some melted butter and also a little thick cream. Return the oysters to the saucepan. Let them come to a boil, and then take them from the fire."


The earliest complete menu for a thanksgiving meal in Columbus I have come across was in a well-used 1902 Billups' family cookbook. There I found a suggested menu for Thanksgiving. For Dinner (lunch) there should be: oysters on the half shell, mutton broth, celery, turkey stuffed with oysters, cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes, baked squash, boiled onions with cream sauce, peach pickles, Waldorf salad, cheese wafers, mince pie, pudding, nuts, fruit and coffee. I recall from my childhood having Thanksgiving Lunch with my great aunt Marcella Billups Richards. She insisted that the most important item in the meal was the pickled peaches.


While we don't think of shopping as a Thanksgiving tradition, it has been promoted for a lot longer than you would think. An 1897 advertisement by the Columbus Clothing Company carries the headline "Your Thanksgiving" and then says:


"Thanksgiving means being thankful. You cannot be thankful unless you have something to be thankful for. Many people think all they have to be thankful for is the turkey they eat for their dinner. You have reason to be thankful for the opportunity to buy first-class clothing at a price that suits your purse. Our excellent values are worthy your thankfulness."


The ad in the Nov. 21, 1897, Columbus Dispatch included the drawing of a child turning his back on a platter of turkey to reach for a hanger of new clothes. Maybe Thanksgiving hasn't changed as much as we thought.



Rufus Ward is a Columbus native a local historian. E-mail your questions about local history to Rufus at [email protected]


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