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‘Pumpkin Pies, Forever!’

As I shopped for Thanksgiving dinner supplies the other day, I found myself pondering the history of the holiday in the Commonwealth. When did Kentucky start observing Thanksgiving? How did early Kentuckians celebrate? What dishes did they eat? Would our ancestors recognize our festivities? Luckily, the Kentucky Historical Society had the resources to satisfy my curiosity. Kentucky’s first official Thanksgiving Day took place more than 173 years ago, almost two decades before President Lincoln established the national holiday.

During his final year in office, Gov. Robert P. Letcher proclaimed Sept. 26, 1844 “a day of Prayer, Praise and Thanksgiving,” which he asked “the people of the Commonwealth to set apart, observe and keep holy” in appreciation of “the rich and abundant blessings of the past and present year.” Since this was a new holiday, some local media explained how to celebrate to its audience.

One Kentucky paper helped correct “a very general mistake prevailing through the country as to the character” of the holiday; instead of “a day of Fasting and prayer...Thanksgiving day is a day of joy and festivity” which should include “the most sumptuous dinners that the abundance of the country will afford.” Another paper kept its advice simple, proclaiming “pumpkin pies, forever!” Yet, a Virginia observer noted a problem with Kentucky’s celebration, arguing that “Gov. Letcher appointed Thanksgiving Day two months too early” since “there can be no Thanksgiving until pumpkins are ripe. The thing is ‘teetotally onpossible.’”

A decade later, Kentucky had addressed the Virginian’s concerns, moving the holiday to a now-traditional Thursday in November. The celebrations had also solidified into forms that strongly resemble our 21st century holiday. As one newspaper described, “everybody invites everybody to dinner on Thanksgiving, or at least all his kindred…and [they all] tell stories, and laugh, and sing songs, and talk over old things, and family matters, and politics, and neighborhood affairs.” All the while, “every body eats turkies, and chickens, and pumpkin pies, and apple dumplings, and roast pigs, and chicken pies, and spare ribs,” which they washed down with “all kinds of drinks” from “hard cider” or bourbon to “water, tea, or coffee.”

The feast and festivities sound like an echo of my family’s celebrations this year. When Gov. Letcher issued Kentucky’s first Thanksgiving Day proclamation, he celebrated the “propitious” seasons and “abundant” harvests. He expressed his gratitude that the state had largely avoided the “ravages of malignant disease” during the previous year. Bountiful harvests and good health were certainly parts of life that most Kentuckians of the 19th century appreciated when they had them. Yet, many of the things that Letcher said Kentuckians should be thankful for only applied to a small slice of the population.

His assertion that “Our Religious and Political privileges have been enjoyed unmolested” was broadly accurate for white men, but the rest of the state’s residents faced unassailable obstacles to enjoying those same advantages. This is a good reminder; we have more, much more, to be thankful for today than most Kentuckians did in 1844. With enough work, we can hope that in 2190 (173 years from now), Kentuckians will look back on 2017 through similar lenses. Hopefully, the “abundant blessings” continue to expand and are enjoyed by all Kentuckians.

Hopefully, our descendants will continue to celebrate in an inclusive spirit of thanksgiving. And, hopefully, there will still be pumpkin pie.


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