The Making of the Domestic Occasion: The History of Thanksgiving In the United States

Elizabeth Pleck. Journal of Social History. Volume 32, Issue 4. Summer 1999.

Four historians, Leigh Eric Schmidt, John Gillis, Penne Restad, and Stephen Nissenbaum, have recently published books about the history of Christmas and several other major holidays in nineteenth-century Europe: and the United States. Their interpretations provide an organizing framework for understanding the evolution of another holiday, Thanksgiving, between the mid-nineteenth and early twentieth century. My aim is to account for the rise: of Thanksgiving as a “domestic occasion” among the antebellum middle class, the extent that poor and working-class families adopted the holiday by the early twentieth century, and the addition of new elements to the celebration by the 1930s.

Schmidt, Gillis, Restad, and Nissenbaum traced the change in patterns of festivity between colonial days and the mid-nineteenth century. Communal celebration, often raucous, usually outdoors, which involved lower-class males demanding treats from the wealthy gave way gradually to private celebrations of the middle class, sedate but joyful. This historic change in the pattern of celebration I call the rise of the “domestic occasion.” By a domestic occasion, I mean a family gathering held in the home which paid homage to the ideal of the “affectionate family.” Such a family was a privatized nuclear one, with a nurturant mother creating a proper home atmosphere, and providing children with a protected and supervised upbringing. Although the ideal of the affectionate family was a nuclear one, the domestic occasion was often a gathering of extended kin, a family homecoming. Sometimes families invited neighbors or strangers so that these non-family members would not feel lonely on a day of family gathering. The domestic occasion was a culturally dominant form, practiced at first mainly by the upper classes and middle classes, which spread throughout the society in the twentieth century.

The four historians mentioned above regard the domestic occasion both as an expression of the middle-class ideology of the affectionate family and the result of it. This ideology divided the public and private into two separate spheres. The private sphere, that of the home, became “the empire of the woman,” a quasi-sacred space over which the mother as homemaker presided. Middleclass women, with or without the help of servants, organized and arranged the domestic occasion and found it an affirmation of their role in the home, despite occasional complaints about the burden of shopping and worries about indulging children.

John Gillis, Leigh Eric Schmidt, and Stephen Nissenbaum offer additional explanations for the rise of the domestic occasion. Gillis sees it as a “moment in time” or “special time” for the family. The industrial revolution, he argues, gave birth to clock time, industrial discipline, and the schedule. Domestic occasions were scheduled events of family gathering during an epoch when some relatives had moved away from home and the family breadwinner was spending fewer hours with his family during the week. In addition, both Leigh Eric Schmidt and Stephen Nissenbaum explore the commercial origins of the domestic occasion. Nissenbaum shows that the luxury gift was central to the rise of the domestic Christmas. He notes that merchants were advertising gift books, published once a year, as one of the first Christmas and New Year’s presents by the 1820s.

Nissenbaum further argues that the urban upper class felt threatened by gang violence and unlicensed drunkenness during the Christmas season. They favored the homey, seemingly old-fashioned Christmas as a sober alternative to “hideous” cries from the street. Clement Moore’s poem, “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” popularly known as “The Night Before Christmas,” written in 1822, described and helped further the ideal of a domesticated Christmas. Soon after Moore’s poem was reprinted in newspapers, New York City replaced its relatively ineffective private watch with a professional police force. Thereafter the police arrested unruly masqueraders on Christmas, and the public came to regard drunken license on Christmas Eve as disreputable. Nissenbaum admits that the rowdy way of celebrating Christmas never disappeared, but instead he believes it became stigmatized as crime, rather than as harmless festivity.

The four authors share a social constructionist approach toward the history of the domestic occasion. They place it in the category of an “invented tradition,” a phrase devised by Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger. Hobsbawm and Ranger considered an invented tradition a ritual implying continuity with the past, even though that continuity is largely fictitious. Hobsbawm and Ranger traced the history of public rituals, not private ones, although their concept is elastic enough to apply to both. They argued that the invented tradition met the needs of people in the present for a sense of connection with the past, and a desire of people in a modern world “to structure at least some parts of social life within it [their modern world] as unchanging and invariant.” Bastille Day, kilt-wearing, and the pledge of allegiance, they noted, were all rituals invented between the end of the eighteenth century and the last third of the nineteenth century—kilt wearing in the late eighteenth century, the other three rituals in the late nineteenth century. These were entirely new ceremonies, they argued, intended to create the fiction of shared national identity and national unity. Unlike Hobsbawm and Ranger, the four historians I have mentioned located the origin of the domestic occasion in the early rather than the late nineteenth century.

Historians of the domestic occasion also tend to emphasize the equivalent of a “big bang theory,” a single large cultural and economic change, occurring in the early nineteenth century which generated a fixed form and meaning for family ritual. Gillis traces our cultural difficulties in the present to the legacy of living with the myths the Victorians created. Nissenbaum ended his study of Christmas around 1900 because he believed that the holiday had acquired a fixed form by then. A case study of a holiday other than Christmas allows examination of the relative significance of the factors already adduced as significant in the rise of domestic occasions. The second most popular domestic occasion in the modern United States, Thanksgiving, is surprisingly absent from the holidays recently studied. The history of Thanksgiving recounted here will show how the holiday was invented—and reinvented—over four major periods of time between the early nineteenth century and about 1930, how the domestic occasion initially coexisted and then eventually triumphed over more raucous forms of celebration, and how Thanksgiving spread from its initial enthusiasts in New England to become a holiday celebrated by people of many classes and regions.

The history of Thanksgiving is hallowed ground for antiquarians, popular writers, and even an occasional anthropologist. The stow begins with the Pilgrims who held a feast for themselves and their Wampanoag neighbors in October of 1621. Prior to Lincoln, three presidents, George Washington, John Adams, and James Madison, issued ad hoc proclamations of a national day of thanksgiving. Nonetheless, Thanksgiving in the early nineteenth century was mainly popular in New England and to a lesser extent the mid-Atlantic states. As of the 1850s, Thanksgiving was a legal holiday only in these states and in Texas.

Prior to Abraham Lincoln’s proclamation in 1863 of an annual national holiday in November, Thanksgiving was a regional day, both secular and religious. In early nineteenth century New England Thanksgiving day might begin with a morning church service, followed by the large meal in the afternoon. Before or after attending church, men, musket in hand, might take aim at a wild turkey in the fields, or at paper targets. The winner usually won a turkey as his prize for good marksmanship. The food at the feast was bountiful but the setting was relatively modest. Most families did not own a long wooden dining table. They might have had a smaller one, which was set up in a sitting room, parlor, or the bedroom—any room that could be kept warm in winter. There were probably only two courses to the meal, the food for the main meal spread on the table, and the desserts served later. Because the roads were poor, muddy or snow-covered, many relatives, eager to return home for the holidays, were unable to do so.

Hale, Lincoln, and the Tolerance of Misrule

Through the efforts of Sarah Josepha Hale, and later Abraham Lincoln, Thanksgiving became a holiday of the Union, with limited acceptance in the Southern states. The editor of Godey’s magazine, Sarah Josepha Hale, issued yearly editorials beginning in 1846 encouraging the “Great American Festival” of Thanksgiving. Hale wrote letters to governors of states and territories, overseas missionaries, and navy commanders urging them to celebrate Thanksgiving and in the case of the governors, to make Thanksgiving a legal holiday. Hale hoped that a unifying holiday would help avert the prospect of a civil war. Instead, the victory at Gettysburg as well as Hale’s entreaties encouraged Abraham Lincoln in 1863 to declare a national day of thanksgiving in November.

As a holiday of “family homecoming,” Thanksgiving eased the social dislocations of the industrial and commercial revolutions. The ritual of returning home at Thanksgiving, “when the fiedged birds once more flew back to the mother nest,” made it possible to reconcile individualism and obligation to family. A man could be self-made and an obedient son, so long as he reunited with his family for Thanksgiving. The family homecoming also affirmed the importance of the extended family at a time when large-scale migration from New England had weakened kin ties. The ideal of Thanksgiving as a holiday of family reunion emerged at the height of the ideology of domesticity that made the home into a secular shrine. Sarah Josepha Hale thought the holiday established the importance of “the gratified hospitality, the obliging civility and unaffected happiness” of the American family.

Why was it so important that domestic occasions appear to be “old fashioned?” The growth of commerce, industry, and urban life created a radical break between past and present, a gap that could be bridged by threshold reunions at the family manse. Nostalgia at Thanksgiving was a yearning for a simpler, more virtuous, more public-spirited and wholesome past, located in the countryside, not the city. In gaining wealth, the family and nation, it was believed, had lost its sense of spiritual mission. Perhaps celebrating one special day might help restore the religious morality of an earlier generation. In reprinting recipes for the feast, and publishing stories of prodigals returning home, Hale showed how Thanksgiving should be celebrated and explained its meaning. She assumed that the family would attend church the morning of the feast, although many Thanksgiving articles in Godey’s did not emphasize church-going.

By having Lincoln as its midwife, Thanksgiving also celebrated the blessings of American nationhood as well as its domestic ideals. Thanksgiving was-and is—a holiday of American civil religion, that is, religious belief in the national purpose and destiny. The nation, it was believed, was blessed by God and given a special purpose in the world. (The distinction between Thanksgiving and Christmas in this regard is a matter of degree rather than of kind, since some Victorian Christmas trees in America might be decorated with the American flag and those in Britain were draped with the Union Jack.) To Lincoln, Thanksgiving was the time for a grateful nation to praise God for blessings bestowed, for the many years of “peace and prosperity,” for the growth in national wealth, power, and population, “as no other nation has ever grown.” Lincoln, or William H. Seward, who wrote the proclamation, saw Thanksgiving as a holiday when the “whole American people” invoked God but he also raised the troublesome idea that the country was at war because God was punishing it for a national sin.

An earlier way of celebrating coexisted with the domestic occasion Hale and Lincoln reinvented. As William Dean Howells put it, “The poor recognize [Thanksgiving] as a sort of carnival,” a masculine escape from the family, a day of rule breaking, and spontaneous mirth. Thanksgiving had its own set of rowdies, akin to those at Christmas. Drunken men and boys, often masked, paraded from house to house and demanded to be treated. Boys misbehaved and men committed physical assaults on Thanksgiving as well as on Christmas.

Groups of men, crossdressing, who called themselves the Fantastics or Fantasticals, masqueraded on Thanksgiving beginning in the 1780s. The name Fantastic was English and the practice seems to have been derived from English door to door masquerading for treats. Subsequently the Fantastics copied these and other elements of English mumming, such as drunkenness and ridiculing authority. At the end of the Revolutionary war veterans were dressing up in the rags of the Continental soldiers. The Fantastics paraded in rural and urban areas of eastern and central Pennsylvania, and New York City on Thanksgiving, New Year’s Eve and Day, Battalion Day, Washington’s Birthday, and the Fourth of July.

The upper and middle-class public, which so disliked noisy and threatening bands of youths on Christmas and New Year’s Eve, was more accepting of Fantastical parades. An editorial in a Pennsylvania newspaper in 1870 defended the Fantastics, on the grounds that “it is better to be merry than sad, and if, as some genial writer asserts, a good hearty laugh takes a nail out of your coffin, a parade of the fantasticals can not fail to lessen the bills of mortality.” The New York Times in 1885 regarded the Fantastics as “hilarious” and “quaint.” In New York City the police and an occasional politician joined the parade. Most New York City Fantastics were Irish and working class; many were fish sellers at the Fulton Fish market, along with some politicians and prison guards. As a boy, growing up in the 1880s, the Democratic governor of New York state and later presidential candidate, Al Smith, worked at the market himself, and enjoyed watching the Fantastical parade.

Attacks on Misrule and Immigrant Celebration of Thanksgiving

Lower-class men had been making merry and poking fun at their betters for centuries, on Thanksgiving and other holidays. In the late 1880s the upper class developed its own form of misrule in their exuberance after Thanksgiving Day football games. An organization run by college students, the InTercollegiate Football Association, scheduled its first championship game on Thanksgiving Day in 1876. Two decades later the Chicago Tribune estimated that about 10,000 high school and college teams, and those of athletic clubs were playing football on Thanksgiving Day.

The Thanksgiving Day game was controversial from the beginning. Walter Camp, the “father” of modern football, argued that the fact that fans willingly gave up—or in some cases, postponed—their Thanksgiving dinner to cheer for their team showed the popularity of the game. To ministers and Ethelbret Warfield, president of Lafayette College, football on Thanksgiving desecrated “a great national feast-day.” Warfield regarded Thanksgiving as a day to give thanks to God for the blessings of “the Christian home” and “citizenship.” He believed that whooping college boys, storming theaters, starting fights at “saloons, dancehalls, and worse” were taking the first steps in a life of “temptation and vice.” The collegians were also getting themselves arrested, disrupting Broadway performances, and throwing beer mugs and glasses at high-stepping showgirls. In 1894 Ivy League college presidents, embarrassed by all this, shifted the day of the season-ending game to the Saturday before Thanksgiving, moved the location from Manhattan to college grounds, and insisted that students return to campus after the game had finished.

A broader attack on the Fantastics began in these years as well. The New York Times in 1895 called the Fantastics “intolerable” and a “public nuisance” although the newspaper conceded that children might think them funny. We find decreasing tolerance for misrule on Thanksgiving not in the early nineteenth century, as had been the case with Christmas, bur around 1890. Perhaps the immediate reasons for the change in opinion were double-digit rates of unemployment and civil unrest. Fearful of social disorder, the populace linked the Fantastics or drunken Princetonians with strikers at Pullman or marchers in Coxey’s army. There is no evidence that misrule was more disruptive than before. The difference was that the public felt more threatened by even minor disturbances of the peace.

The Fantastics disappeared by the 1910s, although the masquerade and carnival cropped up in different incarnations. The ball, which had been held at the end of the day of masquerading, was now celebrated in the 1910s and 1920s by gay men in Greenwich Village, many of whom came in drag. It is unclear whether male homosexuals had always been among the crossdressers in the Fantastics parade, or whether an entirely separate group of men had appropriated the ritual they might have witnessed in their neighborhood. Misrule at Thanksgiving also appeared in October. Halloween, rather than Thanksgiving, became the holiday for wearing costumes. Children, sometimes dressed in rags or wearing masks, had always followed the Fantastics on Thanksgiving Day, blowing horns and begging. Calling their ritual the Ragamuffin parade, children continued to beg on Thanksgiving. Although some of the child beggars were poor, more privileged ragamuffins in costume demanded coins or treats in New York City or up state New York as late as the 1940s.

Progressive era reformers regarded child begging on Thanksgiving as immoral and thought children who engaged in it should be arrested. Why were parents not able to control their offspring? the New York Times in 1903 wanted to know. The newspaper castigated parents who allowed children to demand treats or money as indecent. The police tried to enforce a ban against begging. In response to complaints from the public, the clergy, school superintendents, and classroom teachers issued warnings. The New York Times in November of 1930 worried that demanding coins could teach children to become professional beggars and blackmailers and that children were annoying the public. Begging, decided the paper, was a “malicious influence on the morals of children of the city.” Boys’ clubs and other child welfare agencies organized parades and costume contests as alternative activities. As a result of these efforts, child begging on Thanksgiving finally disappeared by the 1940s.

Even before that, the festival of the home had become the dominant way of celebrating Thanksgiving. In the Progressive era Thanksgiving acquired a new meaning, as a domestic occasion that incorporated newcomers into American customs. Surveys of elementary school principals in the 1920s show that Thanksgiving was the most frequently celebrated holiday in the schools, even slightly edging out Christmas. Public school teachers and settlement house workers hoped to assimilate immigrant children to America and use children as Americanizers of their parents. They wanted the children to become patriotic citizens who demonstrated their love of country through celebration of cherished American holidays. Hale helped to invent a domestic occasion, which emphasized family homecoming; Lincoln saw in the holiday an opportunity for a nation to give thanks for its blessings. Both of them used the language of civil religion, even though in the mid-nineteenth century the public still understood the holiday as a Protestant one. In the Progressive era teachers did not emphasize the Protestant origins or meaning of thanksgiving, and instead portrayed the holiday in secular, nationalist terms, as a day when all Americans could feel they belonged to the nation. (Families were expected to say grace before the feast, but churchgoing was no longer a required element of the ritual.)

This Progressive era invention of Thanksgiving made the Pilgrims into the first newcomers who shared the migration experience with subsequent immigrants. Even in Hale’s day, the story of the Pilgrims was the first chapter in the American story. Reverend Samuel Francis Smith in 1831, in writing his hymn, “America,” made clear that he thought that the “sweet land of liberty” originated as the “land of the Pilgrims’ pride.” However, antebellum stories and popular paintings emphasized the landing at Plymouth Rock and the Pilgrims’ first encounters with Indians. In the 1890s the public became as interested in the feast as in other Pilgrim activities. Americans of that era commonly confused the Puritans, the rather intolerant founders of the large Massachusetts Bay Colony, with the Pilgrims, religious separatists who left Holland to establish their own colony in Plymouth in 1620. Those who knew the difference recognized that the Pilgrims were relatively egalitarian, nonideological, and had initially friendly relations with Indians. They worked hard, too, and had been persecuted in Europe, which could not be said for the settlers in Jamestown, Virginia. By the late nineteenth century, the educated elite sought examples of “intense faith, imagination, and courage,” respectable ancestors, founders of their country who “could not be accused of religious intolerance or intellectual arrogance.”

Beginning in the 1890s genealogical fever, snobbery, and the desire to differentiate themselves from the great wave of immigrants standing on the national doorstep led to the founding of the Daughters and Sons of the American Revolution, the Colonial Dames of America, the Society of Mayflower Descendants, and dozens of other patriotic societies. William DeLoss Love, a Congregationalist minister and member of the Sons of the American Revolution, wrote the first history of Thanksgiving. He published The Fast and Thanksgiving Days of New England in 1895. Love argued that Plymouth was the birthplace of the nation and that the New England family of the past was “one of the grandest conceptions of family life known in history.”

Schoolteachers throughout the nation began to teach the story of the Pilgrims to their pupils. Textbooks claimed that the Pilgrims believed in the democratic ideal, since they had drawn up the Mayflower Compact, the first democratic constitution in the New World. Many schools had been putting up Christmas trees and decorating them ever since about the 1870s, but had not made teaching about holidays part of the curriculum. Progressive era educators devised student art projects and contests as part of a social studies education which emphasized teaching about calendric holidays. The selection of the national secular and religious calendar as the form of instruction was an exercise in cultural power, providing children with a dominant set of symbols (the flag, turkeys, Pilgrims, Santas, Easter Bunnies).

Portraying Thanksgiving as a day to be thankful for the blessings of”home and community,” teachers staged elaborate tableaux with girls dressed in white caps and cuffs made out of paper and boys in round collars and cuffs. They decorated their classrooms with pumpkins, ears of corn, and pictures of Pilgrims and turkeys. One Jewish immigrant recalled that schools emphasized “American holidays and our Puritan roots …” indicating the common confusion of the Pilgrims and Puritans. He added, “We had a textbook about Puritans, pictures of Puritans with the big hats and Thanksgiving and so on, and then about the Revolutionary War and the Fourth of July and Betsy Ross and George Washington, and those things we learned.”

Teachers told their students that all Americans were immigrants or their descendants, although some had arrived earlier than others. One Italian immigrant student grasped that “the Pilgrim fathers had come in pursuit of religious freedom; we had come in pursuit of more and better bread.” The schools recognized that they had to develop an emotional bond between the immigrant and the nation, a love of country. Immigrant children could be taught American history and learn about the holidays, but the home was where the deepest feelings of patriotism were conveyed. Thus, the home celebration of holidays needed to be encouraged to reinforce the patriotism learned in the school. By holding a feast around a common table, an immigrant family could demonstrate its aceptance of American customs and knowledge of American history.

How were the teachers’ efforts received? Gary Gerstle has asserted that because Thanksgiving was a cultural affirmation of “family,” Catholic and Jewish households eagerly accepted it. It is true that most states had passed legislation making Thanksgiving a legal holiday by the end of the nineteenth century. Even then, it seems likely that Thanksgiving celebration was most common among the middle and upper classes, in New England and the mid-Atlantic states, and among Protestants. The Catholic church opposed the holiday as a Protestant rite as late as the 1880s. Many in the South still thought of Thanksgiving as a Yankee day. In the West the day was largely one for hunting, and the feast could be a brief and unassuming one. A Colorado pioneer, recalling his family’s home celebration at the turn of the century, claimed that Thanksgiving was “like Sunday in the middle of the week.”

One reason that Thanksgiving was not frequently celebrated among the rural or urban poor was because they could not afford a turkey. Wardheelers brought free turkeys to poor families in immigrant neighborhoods, but not to every home. Some but certainly not the majority of employers handed out free turkeys. Another reason is that Thanksgiving was still understood as religious day. Around 1900, for example, blacks often went to church services on Thanksgiving but rarely had feasts at home. Although it is impossible to establish the frequency of the celebration of Thanksgiving among the poor and working class, it is clear that schoolchildren were cultural conduits, bringing home ideas about celebration, national history, and cultural symbols learned at school. One boy even cut out paper pumpkins and turkeys and pasted them on the windowpanes of his apartment. Children implored their mothers to buy a turkey and roast it. The immigrant child helped promote cultural change, making a request of his or her mother, who might veto it.

The reasons why Pearl Kazin’s mother said no were overtly religious, and covertly cultural. Kazin, who lived in Brooklyn in the 1920s asked her mother, “But Mama, why can’t we have turkey for Thanksgiving like everybody else?” Her mother replied, “Who’s everybody? Mother would say, without taking he eyes from the sewing machine. “The Feins eat turkey Thanksgiving?… We don’t have enough our holidays for you.” The distinction between Jewish and school holidays revealed the distance between Mrs. Kazin’s concept of a festival and the middle-class (Christian) one taught in the schools. A Chinese mother in California, also not a Christian, saw Thanksgiving as a means of extending Chinese hospitality to the host society. But her reasons were more complicated, as she explained, “We share the holiday of our American neighbors … because we wish to live in peace and harmony with them and because I do not wish you children to grow wicked with envy of others.”

Most immigrants sought a culinary fusion, which asserted a bit of group identity while embracing many elements of the dominant culture, even though there were a few families who adopted the entire American menu, including the chestnut stuffing and sweet potatoes. The turkey became the symbol of the dominant culture, and the stuffing, the side dishes, and desserts the immigrant’s contribution. Mothers added spices to the stuffing distinctive to the homeland. Greek families sprinkled pine nuts in the stuffing and the American-born wife of an Armenian husband added pomegranate and Oriental spices to hers. A Chinese-American mother steamed the turkey first, then stuffed it with the glutinous rice mixture she usually used with chicken. Most groups were unconsciously making the statement that they were trying to assimilate by combining a few, selected elements of their culture with fealty to the national holiday and its cuisine. Only a few cooks discarded the traditional American meal entirely.

Commercialization and Radio Broadcast of Football

The Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade, begun in 1924, symbolized the commercialization of a holiday the general public regards as non-commercial. In truth, Thanksgiving was a minor gift-giving occasion in the early nineteenth century. A man might give his brother a Bible for a Thanksgiving present. At first merchants, as Nissenbaum notes, were advertising gift books as suitable presents for Christmas and New Year’s. By the 1850s publishers were also selling gift books for Thanksgiving. Since we often assume that commerce expands exponentially, without interruption, it is puzzling to explain why these initial efforts at gift giving on Thanksgiving seem to have disappeared. Perhaps giving a Bible on Thanksgiving was no longer thought of as the holiday became more secular. And as Christmas gift lists grew longer, it might have seemed wasteful, even superfluous to buy a Thanksgiving present.

While gift giving seems to have disappeared, other forms of commercial goods, originally developed for Valentine’s Day or Christmas, were sold for the Thanksgiving holiday. Greeting cards, paper goods (paper napkins and plates imprinted with pictures of Pilgrims and turkeys), candies, and flowers have been and are now marketed for Thanksgiving. Since the early twentieth century newspapers and magazines began to carry Thanksgiving ads. A Crisco ad from 1916 showed a grey-haired granny with wire-rimmed glasses holding her mince pie made with their product. Commercial foods, such as canned pumpkin, appeared about a decade later. In the Thanksgiving issue of the Saturday Evening Post for 1931, an advertisement for Camels touted the cigarettes as “something to be thankful for.”

There were at least two nineteenth-century antecedents to a parade on Thanksgiving, the Fantastics and football fans, riding atop horse-drawn carriages on their way to the Polo Grounds where the game was to be played. What made Macy’s parade different was that the department store wanted to stage a parade as a prelude to the Christmas shopping season. Appearing at the end of the parade, Santa symbolized the bounty of Christmas and the desire to shower children with presents. So clear was the connection between the two holidays that Macy’s at first called its November spectacle a “Christmas parade.”

Macy’s parade, even in the 1920s, existed not in the shadow of the family feast or the church service, but in competition with the afternoon football game. Football was clearly the more significant of the two forms of out-of-home entertainment, as changes in the timing of Macy’s parade in the 1920s indicate. Initially Macy’s parade offended patriotic groups, who decried a spectacle on “a national and essentially religious holiday.” Macy’s hired a public relations man, who decided that the critics could be placated if the parade in the morning was postponed until at least after church services had ended. The parade, pushed back to the afternoon, began at the same time as the kickoff for most football games. Customers and football fans complained. By the late 1920s, Macy’s had returned to an early morning parade, presumably so as not to compete with afternoon football games.

In the 1920s football finally moved into the home, rather than being merely a form of outdoor amusement which threatened to overwhehn the domestic celebration. The family might dine and then listen to a football game on the radio as a form of after-dinner entertainment. By 1956 football games were televised. Popular entertainment has enhanced home celebration in the twentieth century, whether it was the Christmas program on radio or television or the broadcast of a football game. There is always the question of whether listening to the football game in the living room represented a distinct stage of reinvention of the holiday, or simply a new custom attached to the nineteenth-century notion of feast and homecoming. Men, listening avidly to the game at home, probably thought it was a significant reinvention. They quickly came to regard listening to the game as traditional, part of what made the ritual authentic and meaningful.

Families scheduled their dinner so that they would be finished eating by the time the football game began. Like all forms of mass culture, football has multiple meanings. Journalists, educators, ministers, coaches, and sports writers have interpreted the game as a metaphor for various American social ideals. To be sure, occasional opponents of the game thought the game too aggressive, violent, and dangerous. To the game’s proponents football could be a training ground for war (a common World War I theme) or an antidote to it (a postwar theme). It could be a symbol of imperialism and social Darwinism (proof of the “dominance of the white race” and the success of the fittest). It might combine Christianity with male athleticism, or serve as an excellent preparation for bureaucracy, team work, and management (in the writings of the Yale “football coach,” Walter Camp). Many late nineteenth century writers argued that football demonstrated the success of Victorian virtues, such as regularity, self restraint, and fair play. Some writers also noticed that the Thanksgiving Day game generated loyalty among college students and alumnae and that attendance at the Thanksgiving Day game provided an opportunity for a fur-coated elite to display status by arriving at the game in decorated carriages.

What was lost on these devotees of the game was the irony in a family event, punctuated by (mostly) men listening to a game noted for its aggressive body contact, warlike language, male bonding, and the ability of contestants to withstand pain. There had always been gender segregation at the Thanksgiving meal, with men talking to other men, and women conversing with women before and after the meal. As women in the kitchen washed the dishes, and men listened to the game, one could recognize that women (willingly) gave up their leisure, and that men and children benefitted from female sacrifice. Men and women also occupied separate spaces in the home on Thanksgiving, although it was easier for a woman to enter the living room where men were listening to the game than for a man to don an apron and help in the kitchen.

Encamping in the living room, men seemed to find solace in an all-male group, after having participated in an event so female in ambience. One function of football, even enjoyed vicariously, was to reaffirm men’s bonds with other men and their masculinity, to inject some manliness into the sentimentality. Sons, listening to the game with their fathers, were learning the rules of male sociability—and being weaned away from their mothers. Listening to football was an additional masculine element that followed the ritual of carving the turkey, man the gladiator side by side with man the hunter. As such, the football game on Thanksgiving Day provided an added symbolic statement about the difference between the genders.

What makes for a domestic occasion? Certainly the ideology of domesticity, the cultural and economic anxieties and dislocations of the industrial and commercial revolutions played a significant role. Middle-class women found the idea of the domestic occasion an affirmation of their nurturing role in the family, and an opportunity for kin to reunite. The compliments called out to them for their mince or pumpkin pie usually compensated for the burdens of cleaning and cooking. The nineteenth-century Thanksgiving was not entirely devoid of commercialism. Yet in the case of Thanksgiving, nationalism was a more significant feature than commerce. In that sense, Hobsbawm and Ranger were correct to draw attention to nationalism as a force in creating new traditions and reinvigorating others. Celebrating the national mission was an important impetus for the invention of Thanksgiving in the early nineteenth century and remains a central element in the holiday to this day.

Christmas, the most significant calendric holiday of the year, the most culturally rich one, and the most commercialized, does not provide the model for other holidays. Consumer culture has shaped every American domestic occasion, but not to the same degree. Exactly how commerce and sentiment were married varied for each occasion. Responding to petitions from merchants, Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1939 changed the date of Thanksgiving to the third Thursday in November to lengthen the Christmas shopping season. Two years later he admitted his mistake, and proclaimed again the fourth Thursday in November as the day for national Thanksgiving because the public did not want Christmas to intrude on Thanksgiving. Roosevelt had tampered with a fixed date, which the public objected to. Nonetheless, a certain level of intrusion was accepted, since the crowds enjoyed Thanksgiving day parades even though such parades commercialized Thanksgiving on behalf of Christmas.

Nissenbaum argued that the domestic Christmas emerged as an upper class and middle-class alternative to rowdy youth gangs rioting and disturbing the peace. At Thanksgiving, the domestic occasion coexisted with rowdiness, and significant efforts to eliminate misrule occurred decades after the domestic occasion had become the dominant form. The public seems to have tolerated misrule at Thanksgiving from the Federalist era to the Gilded Age. Attitudes began to change in the 1890s, perhaps because an economic depression and civil unrest made misrule appear more threatening. The antebellum New York City police took swift action to arrest the unruly on Christmas Eve; attempts to ban the Fantastics were sporadic, and took a long time to effect. The child begging on a sacred day went on, year after year, because the police and mothers tolerated it.

American nationalism has shaped the celebration of Thanksgiving since the days of Lincoln. Thanksgiving did not unify a war-torn nation, but the holiday probably did help unify the Northern side during the Civil War. In the Progressive era schoolteachers wanted to incorporate immigrants into the nation. They tried to broaden the appeal of the holiday, and draw in their immigrant students. Teachers followed the maxim, persuade the child, and the parents will follow; they seem to have succeeded in convincing their students of the importance of the holiday, and in getting them to plead with their parents to celebrate it. Nonetheless, many parents failed to grasp the significance of Thanksgiving. Quite a few mothers did not roast a turkey on Thanksgiving not simply because they could not afford one but because they considered Thanksgiving an alien holiday.

Thus, it took a long time before Thanksgiving became beloved in all classes and regions, or among most homemakers. The introduction of football made the holiday more appealing to many men. By adding listening to an athletic contest to a feast, families recognized that popular entertainment on the radio enhanced the celebration. Listening to the game was not simply a new custom added to the family feast; it became a central attraction of the holiday for men. While the domestic occasion of the early nineteenth century represented the feminization of the middle-class home, radio broadcast of the game at Thanksgiving helped masculinize the domestic festival.

The reinventions of Thanksgiving show the significance of American nationalism, the desire of (many) immigrants to adopt the national culture, but in a hyphenated form, the significance of children as agents of change, and the role of popular entertainment in enhancing modern festivity and in adding a masculine element to a highly feminine occasion. As this study of Thanksgiving demonstrates, Thanksgiving has been reinvented several times, with changes in both form and meaning. Tad Tuleja nicely summarized this evolution when he wrote that Thanksgiving has become “Puritans plus Sarah Josepha Hale and the Butterball trademark and football and (in some Italian families) lasagna as a traditional side dish.” Tuleja’s list included only the elements grafted on to Thanksgiving. Through the efforts of teachers, the police, college presidents, and social agencies, we have also gradually subtracted a significant element, misrule, from the celebration of Thanksgiving.