Victorian Thanksgiving Traditions

Although the first Thanksgiving is considered to have been between the Plymouth colonists and the Wampanoag, Thanksgiving as a national holiday, and the traditions still practiced today, actually have a Victorian beginning. For more than two centuries, days of thanksgiving were celebrated by individual colonies and states. It wasn’t until the campaign efforts of Sarah Josepha Hale however, that convinced President Lincoln to declare Thanksgiving as a national holiday on October 3, 1863 with the first national celebrations on November 26, 1863. The hope was for Thanksgiving to be a time to give thanks and would help to “heal the wounds of the nation” from the devastation of the Civil War.

Many of the traditions that started during the Victorian era celebration of this holiday carry through to today. People decorate their homes with pumpkins, turkeys, and other fall and harvest items. Meals were had all together with the finest dishes possible, and for some a children's table was created with bright decorations and games. Even the traditions of Thanksgiving and football started to take shape in the 1890s, with sports rivalries on a professional level becoming more common during this time. The Thanksgiving dinner menu is similar to this time with turkey, cranberry, stuffing, pumpkin pie, potatoes and other seasonal favorites as some examples. Today, however, we seem to have lost some of the other Victorian staples including mincemeat pies, scalloped oysters, clams, plum pudding and boiled onions.

So whether you spend your Thanksgiving cooking, playing, spending time with family, or just eating, take a moment to reflect, and give thanks to the Victorians for the holiday traditions still used today.

James A Garfield National Historic Site

Last updated: January 23, 2021