There was a time when the family holiday was less predictable.
Although Thanksgiving harks back to an event in 1621, it wasn’t commonly celebrated nationally until the middle 1800s. For many years, Thanksgiving, with its associations with a Massachusetts event, was regarded as a New England holiday. New England magazine journalist Sarah Josepha Hale (1788-1879), well known for writing “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” began campaigning to make Thanksgiving a national holiday in 1827.
Though some sources claim Thanksgiving was not celebrated in the South until Virginia started a tradition in 1855, there was at least an awareness of the holiday in Knoxville by 1847, when the newspaper The Knoxville Registerurged the “universal adoption” of the holiday previously celebrated in just a few states in the North. That year it’s also mentioned in the diary of Drury Paine Armstrong (1799-1856), a planter who lived in what’s now known as Crescent Bend, on Kingston Pike. He remarked that it had been “proclaimed by the governor,” but doesn’t mention what his family did in observance.
A few years later, Gov. Andrew Johnson, the 47-year-old former tailor from Greeneville, declared a Thanksgiving Day to be held on Thursday, Dec. 6, 1855. In Knoxville, it was celebrated in a public way, with an ecumenical “Divine Service.” The event was held at First Presbyterian Church, at the corner of Church Avenue and State Street, but most local churches participated.
“We presume our citizens will properly observe the day, and as is customary allow a suspension of business on the occasion,” stated the Knoxville Register. The line “as is customary” suggests Thanksgiving was already a habit in Knoxville.
In 1856, Tennessee was apparently still out of step with the rest of the nation, celebrating the holiday on Nov. 27, a week later than most other states did. That year, the Register described Thanksgiving as “a day of prayer and feasting—prayer for those who will, and feasting for those who can.”
President Abraham Lincoln first declared Thanksgiving to be a national holiday in 1863, to be held on Nov. 26. That Thursday, Knoxville was under siege, and more than half surrounded, by 20,000 Confederate soldiers, who were attempting to starve the city. It’s unlikely many Knoxvillians celebrated Thanksgiving with a feast, because most did not have access to much food. But General Ambrose Burnside obeyed the orders of the commander in chief, issuing General Field Order Number 32, instructing his soldiers to observe Thanksgiving. As historian Dr. Digby Seymour remarked, the Union soldiers defending Knoxville received “a full ration of bullets but only a half-ration of bread.”
A desperate charge on Union Fort Sanders would come three days later, turned back by the well-entrenched, if not well fed, Union defenders.
Thanksgiving began life in Knoxville as a religious holiday, but bloomed after the Civil War into a noisy festival that often included fireworks, hunting parties, roller-skating parties, vaudeville comedy and musical shows in theaters on Gay Street, and even, as early as 1887, tennis tournaments. Churches kept having Thanksgiving Day services, but sometimes complained that fireworks interrupted hymn singing.
Reformers made a point to feed the less fortunate on Thanksgiving Day. By the early 1900s, the YMCA and the Salvation Army, and the Children’s Mission Home, run by two German immigrants, served free Thanksgiving dinners.
Reformer Carrie Nation spent Thanksgiving, 1906, in Knoxville. The prohibitionist famous for smashing up saloons with her hatchet, Nation had threatened to do the same in Knoxville. Saloonkeepers put out signs saying “All Nations Welcome Except Carrie.” To their relief, Ms. Nation celebrated the holiday quietly with a dinner at the Cumberland Hotel’s dining room at the corner of Gay and Cumberland.
We don’t know whether she was tempted by sports, but that year Thanksgiving Day football and also basketball were becoming common diversions. That year, UT’s “scrubs” played against Knoxville High School.
In the 20th century Thanksgiving became a quiet family holiday. But Tennessee remained out of step with the nation, in some ways. As late at the 1940s, Tennessee was still observing the last Thursday of the month as Thanksgiving, not the fourth Thursday, as most of the rest of the nation celebrated it. As a result, Tennessee Thanksgivings were sometimes a week later than national Thanksgivings.