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History in the Hills: Tradition of giving thanks

For many of us, Thanksgiving Day is a time to spend time with family, eat and watch football. Appropriately, many traditions have sprung up from this day. After all, it is a day where we eat special foods, use the “good” dishes and generally get stuffed.

For my family, when we awaken, our first thing on the agenda is watching the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. Generally before the parade is over, preparations for the feast have already begun. My wife works in the kitchen and I handle overflow dishes utilizing our basement 1950 Westinghouse Commander Range. This stove, the same model Lucille Ball used on “I Love Lucy,” is still working, although the thermostat is a bit finicky.

After cleanup and dessert, we all sit on the sofa and watch Bing Crosby in the 1954 Irving Berlin film “White Christmas.” A tradition carried over since my wife was a girl with her grandmother, it has now become a living part of our family tradition as well.

One of my favorite songs from that movie is “Count Your Blessings” — a great song that makes one think of all they have, especially on Thanksgiving. While Thanksgiving may be celebrated in remembrance of the Pilgrims and Native Americans coming together and sharing a feast, today we should also take time to be thankful for all of our individual blessings, big and small.

Looking back at our area and the way Thanksgiving was celebrated in the past is very interesting, and not far off from how we celebrate it today.

On Nov. 9, 1859, a proclamation appeared in the Steubenville Weekly Herald, given by the hand of Ohio Gov. Salmon Chase. It explains, “I appoint a day of Thanksgiving and Prayer to almighty God. I hereby designate and set apart Thursday, the 24th day of November, 1859, to be devoted by the people of this state to these sacred duties. And I respectfully urge all good citizens that, putting aside ordinary business, they assemble on that day in their respective places of public worship, and offer unfeigned thanks to our Heavenly Father for all the blessings wherewith He hath blessed us as a Nation, as a State, and as individuals.”

In these early years, it seemed that Thanksgiving was more of a holiday to go out to the churches for public worship. Sadly, the clouds of Civil War were on the horizon and it would not be long until many soldiers from our region would be joining the fight to save the Union. In this same publication, the people of Steubenville received updates of the trial of John Brown, whose failed raid at Harpers Ferry foretold of years of bloodshed ahead.

The first Thanksgiving celebrated here in Steubenville during the Civil War was described by the Steubenville Weekly Herald on Dec. 4, 1861 as “being observed by our citizens, but with a few exceptions. Services were held in most of the houses of public worship, and while some churches were not open for the observance of the day, the congregations united with others in returning thanks.

Thanksgiving was not only observed in Ohio, but in 16 other states of the Union, so, the 16 states, on the 28th of November 1861, engaged in common prayer, praises and Thanksgivings.” In November of 1861, it is written also that Western Virginia first celebrated its first known Thanksgiving in the commonwealth.

In 1863, Abraham Lincoln declared a National Day of Thanksgiving. And what did they eat for their dinners on Thanksgiving Day? You guessed it, turkey naturally. On Nov. 15, 1865, the Steubenville Weekly Herald offered some advice on how to fatten up your bird. “For each turkey, mix about a pint of Indian meal with one pint of unbolted wheat flour, and pour boiling water on it, stirring rapidly till it forms a thin mush. Let skimmed milk and water be given also. In two weeks they will be fat and oily as butter. They will fatten better to have their liberty in a spacious yard.”

Turkey must have always been the Thanksgiving bird. In December 1864, as reported by the Steubenville Weekly Herald, “Seventy-five wagon loads of poultry reached General Sheridan’s men in Winchester. “It isn’t the Turkey,” one soldier remarked on the gift “but the idea that we are cared for” and thus struck the keynote of the whole festival.

Caring for one another, giving thanks for our blessings and giving back to our communities is what Thanksgiving has always been about. Spending time with loved ones and taking part in traditions are a great way to be thankful, too.

I am thankful to you my readers who have stuck with me these last two years, especially the late Helen Ferrari, who passed away this past week. She never missed an article and always made a special point to call my grandmother to discuss the past, and that was a great encouragement to me. I dedicate this article in her memory.

In the voice of Bing Crosby, let us always remember to “count our blessings” and we will be thankful for all that we have, not just on Thanksgiving, but every day of the year.

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