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Nashville's first Thanksgiving and why it took so long to get around to it

Fraught Blessings



Though efforts were made to force the holiday upon us before then, Nashville's first real Thanksgiving didn't take place until Nov. 24, 1859.

New England had observed a yearly Thanksgiving since the mid-17th century, which some people thought might be a nice tradition for us to take up. The Episcopal Church had a time of Thanksgiving in its liturgical calendar at the beginning of November, and Episcopalian Nashvillians were expected to participate in it. Eventually, the governors of Tennessee started declaring statewide days of thanks usually on the last Sunday of the year.

But for 80 years, despite the efforts of church leaders, politicians and newspapers, Nashville largely treated Thanksgiving as a joke.

Nashvillians mostly saw it as a relic of Puritan nonsense, so the first widespread recognition of Thanksgiving was as the proper time to set stories in which they made fun of Northerners. In 1825, the Nashville Whig ran a fanciful story about a Thanksgiving dinner that took place in New England, "where the superstition of our ancestors still possess strong hold on the minds of the people." In it, a family and their pastor become convinced the Devil is in the basement, but it turns out to be a ram.

A decade later, in 1834, the Nashville Republican ran a piece about how the governor of Massachusetts had declared a statewide Thanksgiving there, noting that the custom might "ultimately be observed throughout the country." And though the Republican was, as far as we know, in favor of such observation, immediately below this story it ran a tale of a recent Thanksgiving held at a Nashville public house, where all of the participates prayed, "Parent of all good, in heartfelt gratitude we desire to thank thee for all that thou hast at this time set before us — but, O Lord, when we pay $12 per month for board, ought we not occasionally to have a little butter, and cream for our coffee?"

Then a couple years later, in 1836, the Republican ran a fictional tale about Johnny Beedle, whose wife, Hannah, wants to have Thanksgiving at home so she can trick him into believing that their son Moses has a lump on his head that means he'll be evil. It's a convoluted story, but the point seems to still be, "Oh, Thanksgiving. What a funny holiday observed by strange and superstitious people."

By 1846, probably due to the longstanding Episcopal observation of Thanksgiving, Nashville was softening a bit to the idea of the whole community giving thanks together. For instance, at the beginning of December that year, the Republican Banner ran George Washington's first Thanksgiving proclamation. And Tennessee Gov. Aaron Brown dedicated the last Sunday of the year as a statewide day of Thanksgiving.

But remember, the Episcopalians had already had their Thanksgiving back on the traditional first Thursday of November. They did not want to turn around and do Thanksgiving again right after Christmas. Bishop James Otey had to send a letter to all the ministers of the Protestant Episcopal Church and to a number of newspapers announcing a solution: The Episcopalians could just give a little thanks at the end of the year in the form of a short prayer he provided to them, thus meeting their civic obligation even though they had already met their religious one.

Yes, Tennessee's inaugural statewide Thanksgiving was almost ruined by the only people in the state already in the habit of observing an annual Thanksgiving.

So Thanksgiving succeeded, barely, in becoming a yearly statewide celebration, but it was hardly a rallying point for the city. In 1850, the Republican Banner noted that Thanksgiving is "getting to be more and more observed in the city, most of the stores, we believe, having been closed last year." You can almost taste the wishful thinking.

Nashville's first proper Thanksgiving — one in which Nashvillians enthusiastically did things we would recognize today as Thanksgiving-like without complaint or chiding from their local paper or religious leaders — took place in 1859. After decades of treating the holiday like something of a joke at best or ignoring it at worst, Nashville finally found a way to love it: We had a Thanksgiving Day parade.

The whole city turned out to watch as the newly formed city militia, the Rock City Guards — Rock City was an old nickname for Nashville — marched to the Capitol. There, they were given a flag by some pretty girls. After that, much to the crowd's delight, they ran through some drills and fired their guns a number of times. They then marched to church. After church, great feasts in honor of the militia were given, first at the home of J.B. Craighead and then at R.C. McNairy's house.

It's not a parade route many of us would recognize or have the endurance for these days, but it was a parade. And in loving it, Nashville finally found a way to love Thanksgiving.

If I had to guess why the parade of the Rock City Guards finally fully opened Nashville's heart to Thanksgiving, I'd say it's because it was homegrown. Nashville didn't care to celebrate a Yankee superstition, nor did we care to be told by leaders — church or state — that we had to celebrate Thanksgiving. But when we could fit the holiday into our city in our own way, by using the occasion as a chance to turn out and support our boys, we threw ourselves into Thanksgiving wholeheartedly.

But our enthusiasm for Thanksgiving wouldn't last. The War started. The Rock City Guards went off and joined the Confederate Army as a part of the First Tennessee Infantry Regiment of Volunteers. The troops who subsequently turned out to drill in our city weren't welcomed by most of white Nashville. And then Lincoln made Thanksgiving a national holiday in a nation many Nashvillians believed they had rejected being a part of. The people who were thankful in those years knew it wasn't safe for them to make too big a deal of it.

In early March 1865, The New York Times noted the Confederacy was having a day of Thanksgiving: "The rebel authorities do not seem to tire of beseeching Heaven for favor on their wicked cause, though the only answers vouchsafed are new disasters and sharper suffering." The rest of the article is about a people obviously abandoned by God holding a Thanksgiving to that God.

This had to burn most Nashvillians who had for so long treated Thanksgiving as a Yankee joke. Now Thanksgiving was a joke those Yankees were having at the expense of Nashville and the rest of the Confederacy.

In December of that year, newly elected Gov. William Brownlow encouraged the citizens of Tennessee to participate in the national day of Thanksgiving. "The return of the closing year," he said, "fraught with innumerable blessings — not the least of which is 'Gentle Peace' — invites us again, with prayer and thanks, to acknowledge before the Author of them all, our multiplied obligations for his loving kindness." Most white people in Nashville loathed Brownlow, and he returned the sentiment, so that year's holiday was, indeed, fraught with something — but probably not blessings.

Anyway, we obviously returned to liking Thanksgiving eventually. But if you want to have a "traditional" Nashville Thanksgiving, you'd be justified in spending the day telling jokes about the weird superstitious people who celebrate it.

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