Staff Spotlight: Thanksgiving with Lincoln


Civil War artist Alfred R. Waud sketched this Thanksgiving scene at a Civil War camp in 1861. (Library of Congress image)

President Lincoln is often associated with setting the precedent for America’s national day of Thanksgiving.

Sarah Josepha Hale, a 74-year-old magazine editor, wrote a letter to Lincoln on September 28, 1863, urging him to have the “day of our annual Thanksgiving made a National and fixed Union Festival.” She explained, “You may have observed that, for some years past, there has been an increasing interest felt in our land to have the Thanksgiving held on the same day, in all the States; it now needs National recognition and authoritive fixation, only, to become permanently, an American custom and institution.”

Prior to this, each state scheduled its own Thanksgiving holiday at different times, mainly in New England and other Northern states. President Lincoln responded to Mrs. Hale’s request and in 1863 he declared not one, but two separate Thanksgiving celebrations. The first was on Thursday, August 6, 1863 following the Union’s victory at Gettysburg. The second was Lincoln’s official declaration of Thanksgiving as a nationwide holiday, to be observed on the last Thursday of every November. (It has since been changed to the fourth Thursday of every November.)

How did Lincoln celebrate Thanksgiving? Besides issuing a Proclamation, many historians believe that during his presidency, there would have been a grand Thanksgiving dinner at the White House. Since Lincoln started the tradition of an official Thanksgiving, we asked President Lincoln’s Cottage staff: what are your cherished Thanksgiving traditions? Read the answers below:

Curtis Harris

For the last four years, I’ve had Thanksgiving at a friend’s home in Northern Virginia. His wife cooks a mean spread including mashed potatoes and dinner rolls, which are basically the only foods I eat on Thanksgiving. Don’t really care for all the turkey and cranberry sauce. What’s really fun though is that we all follow basketball and spend most of the day lamenting that NFL football is all over TV instead of the NBA. It’s a tradition we cherish every fall and give thanks that we suffer from the absence of basketball together instead of alone.

Jeff Larry

Racing to Whole Foods on Thanksgiving morning to exchange the turkey that froze overnight in my beer fridge.

Callie Hawkins

For several years, my holiday tradition was to work a special event held by the living history museum where I worked. One particular Thanksgiving Day was freezing cold, and I was tasked with baking a pound cake—from scratch. At 23, I could barely boil water, but I did my best to make it look like I knew what I was doing. I gathered eggs from the chicken coop, ground the grain to make flour, and fashioned a whisk out of sticks. I’m not kidding when I say it was the best pound cake I’ve ever eaten, and I will never, ever make another one. 

Sahand Miraminy

My favorite Thanksgiving tradition is giving back. At a time when you’re surrounded by family and mountains of food, it’s easy to feel incredibly fortunate. For the last 10 years, I’ve spent a part of my Thanksgiving volunteering, typically at the Salvation Army. This year, I’ll be participation in a charity cancer walk.

Nora Cobo

My husband and I grew up in the same town, and we spend Thanksgiving there. Every year, the day after Thanksgiving, we get together with a group of people we’ve known since childhood for a sushi dinner and serious catching up. It’s something I look forward to each fall!

Nathaniel Hodges

Every year I spend Thanksgiving with my mother’s side of the family, so we don’t see them at Christmas. Thanksgiving is always a whirlwind where we try to fit in traditions from both holidays. The day of Thanksgiving is always the traditional turkey dinner and stuffing fare, but Friday is the real treat. We wake up early to my grandmother’s French toast, exchange early Christmas gifts, and help out making a “Sunday roast” style dinner with roast beef, Yorkshire pudding, and all the other fixings. Afterwards, we all go to the movies and half of us end up sleeping through whatever movie we’ve chosen.

Jenny Phillips

Since I’ve been abroad for a few Thanksgivings, the only constant between each holiday has been coming together with people I love — whether it’s my extended family in Rochester, NY or a hodgepodge circle of expat friends — eating a nice meal and enjoying everyone’s company. Green bean casserole is my favorite side dish, so it’s the one staple on the menu each year. (It’s hard to find a whole turkey in Asia!) When I was in South Korea I traveled nearly two hours to find cream of mushroom soup in a specialty American food store, and had to improvise by using crushed up Funyuns instead of the French’s fried onions for a topping.

Ashley Holcomb

My favorite Thanksgiving tradition is eating my grandma’s mashed potatoes. Since I moved away from North Carolina, I feel immensely grateful every time I am able to go home for the holidays. My grandma knows how much I love her mashed potatoes, so she always cooks a huge pot of them and sends me home with a generous portion of leftovers. She claims she doesn’t make them any differently than anyone else, but I know her mashed potatoes are so good purely because she made them and she is magic.

Jamie Cooper

Once upon a time, for as long as I can remember, I used to go various relatives’ homes (around 10-15) and help them decorate their Christmas trees. A lot of this was because I was raised by my grandmother. She and I would be invited to help decorate the Christmas trees at my cousins, aunts, and uncles. It was something I looked forward to because I was a decorating perfectionist and I anticipated eating a lot of food at each home. I loved being with with so many family members. It is something I miss. This was something that I anticipated each Friday and Saturday after Thanksgiving.

Erin Carlson Mast

My favorite tradition is that everyone contributes to what is on the table in some way, shape, or form. That might mean someone provides a family recipe for inspiration, brings linens, helps with the shopping, cooks or bakes the food, or participates in setting and clearing the table. Where we go, who is with us, and what we eat varies year to year, and reflects the diversity of other traditions in our extended family. The act of contributing is the constant, and it’s a loving, tangible way of showing we are thankful for one another.

Zach Klitzman

Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday of the year, even though I don’t exactly have specific traditions on the day. Except Pumpkin Pie. There must be Pumpkin Pie. But dessert aside, I think the holiday is underappreciated. When else do Americans of all stripes gather around to eat good food, hang out with family, maybe watch some football, and reflect on the year behind and the year ahead? Black Friday and then the subsequent December holidays often seem to overshadow Thanksgiving. Yet pausing to reflect on what we’re thankful for is an important day for the nation. As Lincoln himself said in his proclamation announcing a national day of thanksgiving, “It has seemed to me fit and proper that” our nation’s blessings, “should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole American People.” So if anything, my favorite Thanksgiving tradition is reflecting on what we have to be thankful for.

This Thomas Nast cartoon, titled, "Uncle Sam's Thanksgiving Dinner" was published in 1869, and looks hopefully to a diverse but unified America. (Library of Congress image)

This Thomas Nast cartoon, titled, “Uncle Sam’s Thanksgiving Dinner” was published in 1869, and looks hopefully to a diverse but unified America.
(Library of Congress image)


President Abraham Lincoln's Thanksgiving Proclamation, published on July 15, 1863. (Library of Congress image)

President Abraham Lincoln’s Thanksgiving Proclamation, published on July 15, 1863.
(Library of Congress image)

Thanksgiving Timeline

1777: All 13 Colonies hold thanksgiving celebrations.

1789: President George Washington declares November 26th, a national day of thanksgiving.

1863: President Abraham Lincoln declares the last Thursday of November “as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise.”

1920: The first Thanksgiving parade is held in Philadelphia.

1924: The first Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade is held in New York City.

1934: The National Football League holds its first game on Thanksgiving Day.

1941: After altering the date of Thanksgiving, President Franklin Roosevelt reestablishes the fourth Thursday of November as Thanksgiving Day.

1947: President Harry Truman pardons a turkey that is marked for Thanksgiving dinner at the White House.

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