Give Your Thanks to a New Jerseyan for this Holiday

History and Landscape
Published November 25, 1999

Give Your Thanks to a New Jerseyan for this Holiday

| Published November 25, 1999

Elias Boudinot, president of the Continental Congress from 1782-83, gets major credit for the creation of Thanksgiving as a holiday. The Newark Public Library

So you think that mother, apple pie, the American flag and Thanksgiving have always been American traditions?

Maybe in the case of the first three yes, but give a resounding 'no' to the Thanksgiving holiday. In case you think that the Massachusetts Bay Puritans created the holiday, you are wrong again. While our northern cousins may have originated the idea, it was a New Jersey man who put it to the test and made it a legal holiday, the one we celebrate on the fourth Thursday in November. As every school child knows, our first Thanksgiving was celebrated in 1621 by the Massachusetts Pilgrims. But a search of our history books shows other similar observances. In December 1673, New Amsterdam's colonial Dutch governor set aside a day for 'a fast, humiliation and thanksgiving, ' that 'forbad all labor, hunting, fishing, farming and excess in drinking.' In 1676, a local thanksgiving was observed by New Jersey's General Assembly on the second Wednesday of November for 'the signal demonstration of God's mercy and favor toward us in this colony, in the preserving and continuing of peace in the midst of wars round us, together with many other mercies which we are sensible of.' In November 1679, a thanksgiving proclamation was issued for 'the mercies of God to us in our province, delivering us from the infectious disease of small-pox, and other diseases, and from the trouble of the Indians, and all other mercies which we have received in the past year, ' and in 1696 New Jersey's provincial governor ordered thanks for the 'discovery of a most horrid and barbarous conspiracy of papists and other treasonous persons against the life of his most sacred Majesty, (King) William III.'

Thanksgiving as we generally know it today came about during the administration of President George Washington as a result of one Newark area man, a member of the famous Elizabeth and Newark Boudinot family. Changes in the date on which the holiday was celebrated, occurred in the 19th century. But it was not until 1941 that the nation really began to celebrate it as we do today. Major credit for the creation of the holiday belongs to Elias Boudinot who served as president of the Continental Congress from 1782-1783 and who some consider the first president of the United States. He was tall, handsome, elegant and an eloquent member of the United House of Representatives, a Federalist who was born in Princeton, resided most of his life in Elizabeth, had a law office in Newark, and eventually moved to Burlington in his old age to be near his daughter. His brother, Elisha Boudinot, was rumored to have been Newark's wealthiest man and certainly had the town's most beautiful mansion on the edge of Military Park on the site of today's PSE&G park. This is where he entertained the Marquis de Lafayette in 1832. The Elizabethtown Boudinot left the Continental Congress to serve as Secretary of Foreign Affairs, was elected to the United States House of Representatives where he served three terms, and in 1795 was appointed director of the U.S. Mint in Philadelphia, a post he held until his death. He served as a trustee of the College of New Jersey (Princeton) from 1772 until his death in 1821, and was the first president of the American Bible Society.

When Boudinot introduced a bill in Congress to establish Thanksgiving, it was to honor the establishment of the United States Constitution, not for the harvest bounty, and he assumed the bill would pass rather quickly. Quite the opposite. Already the strains of regionalism had appeared in national politics and two South Carolina congressmen were quick to denounce the proposal. President Washington sidestepped the matter 'recommending' the holiday but suggesting that individual state governors issue proclamations. New Jersey Governor Livingston was the first American governor to accept the idea, and enthusiastically issued a strongly-worded proclamation setting the day aside. President Jefferson, however, was no particular fan of the event, calling it a 'monarchical practice.' In 1812, President James Madison called for a day of thanksgiving, but 47 years went by before another presidential proclamation was issued by Abraham Lincoln. He 'appointed and set apart the last Thursday in November next as a day of Thanksgiving.' Objections to Thanksgiving rested mainly upon growing regionalism in the country, and because celebrations led to considerable drunkenness and disorder. New Jersey's later role in the holiday was curious. Gov. Charles S. Olden moved it to Sept. 26, 1861. For some unknown reason, it was changed to April 30, 1863. After Lincoln decided to move the holiday to the last Thursday in November, New Jersey's governor moved it to a Fourth of July celebration. As late as 1939, during the depths of the Great Depression, President Franklin D. Roosevelt changed its date to the 3rd Thursday 'to accede to the requests of businessmen.' Finally, in 1941, Congress moved it to the day we know today, the fourth Thursday in November. In the 20th century, memories of noted New Jerseyans were recorded in the Newark News. Former Gov. Richard Hughes and his wife, Betty, spent Thanksgiving in 1962 in a Philadelphia motel near the hospital room of their youngest child. Said Betty Hughes, 'I just couldn't think of Thanksgiving with that little baby in the hospital and the rest of us at home. I just had to be with him, so we decided we'd all go and be together.' Bishop John J. Dougherty, former Seton Hall president was studying in Rome, where he had spent seven Thanksgivings abroad. According to him 'Thanksgiving Day in a foreign country is not the same, even though you have turkey, and all the dressing you can eat. Thanksgiving Day is American. It is God's day in the American tradition, the family's day, the people's day.'

On Thanksgiving Day, November 27, 1941, local and national attention was focused more on the war clouds which were descending on the country. Saburo Kurusu, special Japanese envoy and Ambassador Nomura were in the headlines after arriving at the White House to spend the afternoon with the president just days before the attack on Pearl Harbor. On the other side of the world, British forces had cut through the Axis supply road at Tobruk to end a seven month siege, one of history's most dramatic, and a relief column had captured Resegh. In Europe, the Germans continued to gain ground south of Moscow. Many New Jerseyans were included in the 34th Infantry bound for San Francisco and others were on their way to the Pacific by way of Fort Jackson, S.C. On the home front the news was lighter. The Star-Ledger reported that for the first time in years there had been no reports of turkey thefts in local grocery stores. 'According to old-timers in police circles; prosperity, rather than a distaste for the bird, may be the reason.' In a story titled 'Thanksgiving in a Democracy,' it was reported that thousands of homes were being opened to others, including 120 students from the Casey Jones Aeronautical School. The great Bamberger's parade, stretching from Orange to the front door of the store on Washington St. to inaugurate the holiday shopping season, was the other big news. More than 100,000 spectators were expected to witness its mile and a half of floats, huge balloons and pageantry. Additionally, religious services were held in most churches, restaurants and night clubs reported their busiest season ever. Provisions also were made for taking care of the less fortunate. The Salvation Army provides turkey dinners as did many other organizations throughout town.

Fifty years later on November 28, 1991, after a half century of the modern celebration of Thanksgiving, the newspaper headlines also were split between hard news and the joys of holiday itself. On the national and international level, news included the emergency of men and women from the Biosphere II experiment in Tucson, Arizona, and a demand by the U.S. and the U.K. for the turnover of two Libyan agents indicted in the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103. The seasonal news included opening of additional soup kitchens in town as well as the feeding of 850 service people dispatched to the U.S. Navy base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. In Indianapolis, 25,000 dinners for the needy were prepared by 500 volunteers, a tradition previously begun by a local minister. In Mississippi, a Thanksgiving feast was prepared for 1,500 members of the Choctaw tribe. And so, 50 years after America had settled down to celebrating one of its most unique holidays, news of sharing and caring filled the front pages of the local press.

A recent home movie discovered by Anthony Monica of Orange appeared on my desk as I was looking for information about Newark at the holiday time. It is a black and white film segment of the parade for which Bamberger's became so famous. The clip shows floats and costumed participants moving east along West Market and Market streets in the general vicinity of the Essex County Court House and Hall of Records. This three-minute clip portrays individuals dressed as Uncle Sam and Keystone Cops and dozens of ladies best described as looking like a chorus of Gibson Girls. There was an elephant in the parade, and various floats. One of them was a pirate ship manned by Captain Kidd. Of course, the most important float of all carried Santa Claus. A large banner proclaiming 'Happy Thanksgiving and Merry Christmas' preceded this last float. With its salutation, holiday shopping officially opened in Newark. In 1941 the Star Ledger published a lengthy report of the parade that 'thrilled 150,000.' The reporter noted, 'The temperature was 60 degrees, the sky was sunny, and an 80-foot dragon, ‘Ivan the Terrible, ' with scales adorning his green sides marched downtown Newark. His eyes flashed fire and his long rubber tail swished so violently from side to side that his attendants had a tough time keeping their footing.'