Past Times

Thanksgiving finds its place

An unidentified woman and unidentified turkey visit the Turkey, N.C. post office in December 1944.
An unidentified woman and unidentified turkey visit the Turkey, N.C. post office in December 1944. STATE ARCHIVES OF NORTH CAROLINA

This year marks 150 years since Abraham Lincoln officially set the date of the Thanksgiving holiday. Before that, Thanksgiving was difficult to pin down on the calendar.

Prior to 1863, people in different states celebrated Thanksgiving on different dates and in eight different months. Abraham Lincoln stabilized the holiday, setting aside the last Thursday of November. Because November has five Thursdays some years, the day was later switched to the fourth.

In 1939, President Franklin D. Roosevelt moved Thanksgiving to the third Thursday, giving rise to loud and sustained public outcry. Half the nation followed the Presidential Proclamation and feasted on the third Thursday. Traditionalists observed the fourth.

This confused state lasted two more years, then the President and Congress decided in favor of the fourth Thursday.

George Washington is generally credited with being the first President to proclaim Thanksgiving as a national holiday. Prior to the last Thursday in November, 1789, Washington urged the people to offer up their prayers that day “for the signal manifold mercies and the favorable interposition of His providence, in the course and conclusion of the late war.” The N&O 11/28/1963

To commemorate the centennial of Thanksgiving’s official place on the calendar, Dr. Christopher Crittenden, director of the North Carolina Department of Archives and History wrote a brief history of the holiday:

Thanksgiving has been celebrated in Tarheelia for more than two centuries.

Gov. Terry Sanford proclaimed it in 1963. Gov. Arthur Dobbs had done likewise as early as 1759.

The month and the day have varied widely. One year it was May 4, another Dec. 23 – which almost sat it in the lap of Christmas. It could come on almost any day except in the dead of winter.

Sometimes Thanksgiving was celebrated in general. Sometimes in particular.

In 1777, for instance, Gov. Richard Caswell, first governor of the independent state of North Carolina, issued a proclamation setting aside Friday, Nov. 28, as a day of Thanksgiving for the surrender of British Gen. Burgoyne at Saratoga, N.Y., a month earlier.

“To the end therefore that we may not presumptuously attribute the late signal successes gained over our Enemies to our own Strength, and thereby forget the interposition of Divine Providence in our Behalf,” the day is “to be observed in all Churches and Congregations.”

One year the Moravians in Wachovia failed to celebrate Thanksgiving because they had not learned about it in time. Their diary for 1777 contains this:

“A man showed us a newspaper in which it was said that today had been designated by the highest authorities as a Day of Thanksgiving in this Province; we excused ourselves for not observing it on the ground that we had not known of it.”

It was in the year 1783 that Thanksgiving came on July 4. This was at the end of the Revolutionary War, when the United States had just won its independence. The House journal for May 16 carries this:

“Resolved, that the fourth day of July be and is hereby appointed a day of General Thanksgiving . . . for the gracious Interposition of Divine Providence in behalf of this nation; that it hath pleased Him to deliver us from the calamities of War, and crown our wishes with the blessings of Peace. . .”

In recent years, when Thanksgiving had come customarily to be observed in November, there was confusion during the early part of President Roosevelt’s term as to whether it should be observed on the third or the fourth Thursday of the month.

An act of Congress, 1941, made it the fourth Thursday. So it remains. The N&O 11/27/1963

While the state may have been a little inconsistent about the date of the celebration, there was no question about their reverence for the holiday’s guest of honor.

Since the beginning of North Carolina's recorded history, Tar Heels have been a little turkey crazy. The feathered creature has been inspiring place names since the mid-1700s. The word turkey appears in the name of 50 state landmarks. Sixteen counties boast a Turkey Creek....

In Turkey itself, which takes only a minute and a half to drive through, locals shed the village's original name of Springville more than a century ago. Back then, droves of wild turkey migrated into the area through a swamp townspeople call a creek.

Settlers took that as a sign.

"Once upon a time, there were more turkey than children in that schoolyard right there, " said David Hudson, 70, Turkey's retired postmaster....

Folks in Turkey are casual about their town's namesake. They've heard all the jokes.

When a letter bound for Istanbul accidentally ends up in one of their boxes, they simply forward it overseas. Before Hudson retired, he'd get a batch of letters from stamp collectors each holiday asking for a Thanksgiving Day postmark on their wild turkey stamps. He obliged. The N&O 11/26/2004