A Howardian Thanksgiving

As the old adage goes, some things never change.  Such is the case today with our celebration of Thanksgiving that begins with a parade, then a huge feast, followed by watching back to back football games.  It was pretty much the same routine in 1932 when Howard celebrated this traditional American holiday.  Here, in a December 1932 letter to H. P. Lovecraft, details how he spent the recent Thanksgiving holiday.

You struck a responsive chord in me when you mentioned turkey dinner. Thanksgiving! Baked turkey, with dressing made of biscuit and cornbread crumbs, sage, onions, eggs, celery salt and what not; hot biscuits and fresh butter yellow as gold; rich gravy; fruit cakes containing citron, candied pineapple and cherries, currents, raisins, dates, spices, pecans, almonds, walnuts; pea salad; pumpkin pie, apple pie, mince pie with pecans; rich creamy milk, chocolate, or tea — my Southern ancestors were quite correct in adopting the old New England holiday.

I hope you had as enjoyable Thanksgiving this year as I did. I don’t know when I enjoyed a holiday more. Early that morning, the chores being done, my friend “Pink” Tyson and I drove to Brownwood, forty miles to the southeast, to see the football teams of Howard Payne College and Southwestern University battle it out for the championship of the Texas Conference. Arriving there we went to the leading hotel and looked over the Southwestern boys, and a bigger, more powerful team I haven’t seen in years. With them we listened awhile to the broadcast of the Colgate-Brown game, and I thought about you, and wondered if by chance you were seeing the game. After dinner at the home of a friend we helped him unload a bunch of steers, in order to facilitate an early arrival at the game. They were the finest, fattest, big Hereford critters I’ve seen in a longest time; and one of them was the meanest and wildest I ever saw. The three of us fought him all over the hill (on foot), and after we got him in the corral, we couldn’t get the ropes off. We had two ropes on him, or he’d have killed some of us. When he’d plunge at one of us, the other would haul him back, and so on. As it was both of us had some narrow shaves. We finally got one lasso off his horns, but to save our necks, we couldn’t get the other off. We had him hauled against the corral fence, and every time we slacked the rope, he took every inch of it, and tried to murder us. At last I threw a doubled lariat around his huge neck and snubbed his head down against the fence, and held him there while the rope was cast off his horns. Then it was every man for himself! After that we picked up another friend and repairing to the stadium, witnessed one of the fiercest, closest and hardest-fought games I have ever seen, in which a comparatively light, but hard-fighting Howard Payne team triumphed for a fifth straight championship. After the game we returned uptown, got a table at a window through which we could watch the shirt-tail parade and the other antics of the celebrating collegians, and while we watched and gorged ourselves on roast turkey and oyster dressing and ice cream, we decided international championships, selected All-Americans, and agreed that Colgate would be the choice for the Rose Bowl game with the University of Southern California. After that Pink and I drove back through the forty miles of hill country, through one of those still, clear, crisp star-filled nights that you enjoy only during good football weather. Simple and unsophisticated enjoyment, yet somehow I got more kick out of the whole affair than I’ve gotten out of more expensive and less innocent pleasures. We didn’t even take a drink of liquor.

Clearly, Howard  enjoyed this American holiday, which originated in 1621.  In the early decades of the celebration, it was held sporadically and only in certain areas of the country. But Thanksgiving was destined to become an annual occurrence, with a designated day set aside for everyone to celebrate. After American won its independence from England, there was movement toward creating a formal holiday, but it was not until the middle of nineteenth century that the idea really took hold.

In 1842, before Texas was a state, Sam Houston, who was president of the then Republic of Texas, named his own day of Thanksgiving in the spring, declaring March 2, 1842 as a day to be thankful and to celebrate Texas’ independence from Mexico. The date was close to March 6, the date the Alamo fell, which to lead to a quick chain of events that ended with Santa Anna’s defeat at the Battle of San Jacinto on April 21, 1836. Coincidentally (or perhaps not), March 2 was also Houston’s birthday.

Fourteen years before President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed a national holiday be established on the last Thursday in November for “thanksgiving,” Texas Governor George Wood, declared a state holiday for Thanksgiving.  Of course, being Texas, the Governor had his own idea as to when the new holiday should be observed – declaring in 1849 that the first Thursday of December be set aside to give thanks.

But the December Thanksgiving holiday didn’t last too long. When Governor Peter Hansborough Bell, succeeded Wood in 1850, he picked up on Houston’s idea and moved the holiday to the first Thursday of March. That particular day in March, 1850 just happened to be the sixth – yes, date the Alamo fell.

Following the Civil War, most Texans were still upset about the outcome, but they went along with Lincoln’s selection of the last Thursday of November as Thanksgiving. The season of autumn, the Texans conceded, was a good time for the celebration, coming toward the end of the year and after harvest season.

From 1864 through 1938, each president would have to issue a formal proclamation designating a Thanksgiving holiday, typically celebrated on the last Thursday of November.

In 1939, Franklin D. Roosevelt formally declared the fourth Thursday of November as Thanksgiving Day, dispensing with the “last Thursday” observance (occasionally, November has five Thursdays). However, only twenty-three of the then 48 states went along with Roosevelt’s proposed date of November 23, 1939 as Thanksgiving, while an equal number decided the last Thursday, November 30, was good enough. The remaining two states – Colorado and Texas – played it safe and celebrated both days as Thanksgiving that year.

Two years later, Congress passed a law and Roosevelt signed it, making the fourth Thursday of November the official federal holiday. But those contrary Texans, seemingly perpetually burdened with a predisposition to be miffed by Washington’s machinations, decided to stick with the last Thursday of November as Thanksgiving. Each year the president still issues a ceremonial Thanksgiving proclamation.

In the 1950s, Texas remained the last state still observing the “final Thursday” of November as Thanksgiving. Finally, in 1957 the Texas Legislature passed a bill making the fourth Thursday of November the state’s official Thanksgiving holiday.