Thanksgiving slow to catch on in Natchez

Published 12:00 am Thursday, November 25, 2010

NATCHEZ — Even the Natchez resident history expert had to do a bit of research to find information about the earliest Thanksgiving celebrations in Natchez.

The holiday wasn’t widely celebrated in the South until after the Civil War.

Mimi Miller, director of the Historic Natchez Foundation, said many Southerners viewed the holiday as a Yankee tradition and therefore wanted no part in it.

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“There is almost no mention of Thanksgiving pre-Civil War,” Miller said. “Southerners used to consider that a Yankee holiday since it was celebrated primarily in New England.”

Miller found in a letter penned by Natchez resident Seargent S. Prentiss, a well-known attorney, orator and author, a request to Prentiss’ father in Maine to “think of him as he enjoyed roast turkey and pumpkin pies at Thanksgiving.”

No mention was made of similar celebrations taking place in Natchez at the time, Miller said.

Thanksgiving’s origins as a national holiday date to President George Washington, who in 1789 declared a national day of thanksgiving on Thursday, Nov. 26 of that year.

Miller said the magazine “Godey’s Ladies Book,” to which many Natchez households subscribed, popularized Thanksgiving on a national level in the 1850s, just as it did the Christmas tree years before. The magazine was the most widely circulated periodical at the time.

Miller said the magazine’s editor Sarah Josepha Hale started a letter writing campaign targeted at state and federal officials to create a national day of thanksgiving.

Hale ramped up the campaign in the mid-1850s as hostilities between the North and the South increased, Miller said.

Hale’s efforts seemed to have paid off in Mississippi, as the Rev. Joseph Buck Stratton, pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Natchez wrote in his diary on Nov. 20, 1856, that he “observed this day as a day of thanksgiving in compliance with the proclamation of the governor.”

Miller said Stratton also noted in his diary that day that most of the local businesses suspended operation on that day.

But it wasn’t until President Abraham Lincoln, at the urging of Hale, declared in 1863 the last Thursday of November a national day of thanksgiving that the popularity of the celebration spread out of New England, Miller said.

In 1865, Stratton once again wrote about the celebration of Thanksgiving in Natchez. This time, in his diary, he noted that the church would celebrate Thanksgiving with services at 11 a.m. on the fourth Thursday of November at the “recommendation of the President of the United States.”

Miller said the reference to the president ended in Stratton’s diary entries in the 1870s when the holiday gained national popularity.

“Southerners more or less adopted the traditional Thanksgiving menu of the northern states, where the holiday had long been celebrated,” Miller said.