Why aren’t lovers of the southern Lost Cause outraged by the existence of Thanksgiving? Originally a New England regional holiday, Thanksgiving became a national day of celebration at the height of the Civil War. Abraham Lincoln asked the nation (which at that time effectively amounted to the Union states which were then fighting the Confederate states) to offer a day of thanks in imitation of the New England practice.
New Englanders had developed the celebration to honor their region’s historic roots. Focusing on the tiny settlement at Plymouth, they offered a variation on a harvest celebration, one that referenced the early history of English settlement in the area. In the search for a regional past that they could hold up for admiration, New England’s first historians and antiquarians skipped over the larger and more consequential colony of Massachusetts Bay. Its history of executing Quakers and witches made it increasingly notorious. They looked instead to the tiny colony of Plymouth as a result. The origin story they hit on was mentioned in one or two early accounts: a day of thanksgiving for surviving the first year despite a high death rate (about half of all arrivals died in that first winter). These advocates of New England liked the idea of a gathering with local Native peoples—on whom the settlers were heavily reliant for knowledge of foodways among many other things—and of giving thanks, and the story of the “first thanksgiving” was embellished in art and folklore. In keeping with its nineteenth century New England origins, the holiday meal included various regional foods (few if any of which would have been consumed in 1621). Cranberries grew in bogs near the site of Plymouth Plantation, while the maple syrup used to sweeten sweet potatoes came from farther north.
Nothing in this holiday—not its original foods, not its tenuous connection to the past, and certainly not its origins in the Civil War era—related in any way to the southern states then in rebellion against federal government authority. In fact southerners had been battling the mythology of New England and its supposedly peaceful relations with Native peoples through its own myth making around the figures of John Smith and Pocahontas. Until Disney made a film of that story in the 20th century, the southern variant on American origins had lost the battle to be the widely known founding story. Even with Disney’s help, the ubiquity of the Plymouth story in schools and the reenactment of an event loosely based on that autumn gathering, has meant that New England is still ahead in the contest to establish itself as the most popular founding moment for the later United States.
Despite vehement defenses of the southern way of life—often articulated around the Civil War and a romanticized plantation heritage—people all across the former confederate states will sit down for turkey on the fourth Thursday of November. They will do so because the North won the Civil War and first thanksgiving’s celebration as a Union nationalist holiday gradually transformed into a national day of thanks that cut across regions. Even when they toss in a few regional favorites—baked macaroni and cheese apparently among them—southern Thanksgiving retains elements of the New Englanders’ romanticized vision of a colonial meal. Everyone will be passing the cranberries, which is just as Lincoln had hoped would eventually be the case.