Pilgrims’ progress now includes traditions never imagined

Echoes of our past
William & Joy Wangemann  for The Review

Thanksgiving is one of America’s most popular holidays, eclipsed only by Christmas. When the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag Indians first celebrated a day of thanksgiving for a bountiful harvest in the year 1621 they had no idea the tradition they were establishing.

The Holiday however was celebrated irregularly for many, many years. Often it was held on different dates, and even at different times of the year. Various presidents over the years issued proclamations declaring a day of Thanksgiving, generally towards the end of November.

In 1865 in the middle of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln, prompted by a series of editorials written by Sarah Josepha Hale, proclaimed Thanksgiving Day to be celebrated on the final Thursday of November, 1863.

Since 1863 Thanksgiving has been observed annually in the United States but in 1939 President Franklin D. Roosevelt declared that Thanksgiving would be the next to last Thursday of November, rather than the last. However, Roosevelt’s declaration was not mandatory.

23 States went along with his recommendation and 22 did not. Texas, for instance, could not decide and took both weeks as a government holiday.

The dispute over which Thursday would become the official Thanksgiving continued for several years with some people calling the Holiday “Franksgiving”.

Finally in 1941 congress split the difference and established that Thanksgiving would occur annually on the 4th Thursday of November which sometimes was the last Thursday and sometimes the next to last Thursday. On November, 26 1941 President Roosevelt signed this bill into US law.

It has been tradition since the time of Abraham Lincoln to present the President with a large live turkey, which instead of ending up on the Presidents table, the President has pardoned that fortunate turkey.

In more recent years two turkeys have been pardoned in case the original becomes unavailable for Presidential pardoning. Since 2003 the public has been invited to vote for the two turkeys’ names. In 2005 they were named Marshmallow and Yam (who went on to live at Disneyland), 2004’s turkeys were named Biscuit and Gravy and in 2003, Stars and Stripes.

In the year 1918 in Sheboygan the people had a special reason to be thankful as World War I had ended only a few weeks before. Soon thousands of young men would be returning home. Many Sheboygan area families postponed celebrations of Thanksgiving and Christmas until their loved ones returned.

In my own family my grandmother kept the Christmas tree standing in her parlor until my uncle returned from France, in July of 1919.

During the 20’s and the 30’s, when the great depression gripped our country, few turkeys could be found on the tables of Sheboygan citizens. Frozen turkeys, so common to us now, were unknown and fresh turkeys were far beyond the means of many. The preferred poultry of those lean and hungry days was chicken.

It was not until 1934 that football games have been held on Thanksgiving Day. Since that year the Detroit Lions have hosted a football game every Thanksgiving. The Dallas Cowboys have hosted a game every Thanksgiving Day since 1966. Today football is almost a part of Thanksgiving as turkey and cranberry sauce.

During the years of World War II many of the Thanksgiving dinner ingredients were rationed. Butter, sugar, canned goods and most meat, including turkey came under the control of rationing regulations.

Other traditions, such as the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade in New York, have all become part of Thanksgiving. But here in Sheboygan no Thanksgiving tradition was more eagerly looked forward to than the opening of the H.C. Prange Company’s marvelous animated Christmas windows. Regardless of the weather hundreds, if not thousands of people thronged to downtown Sheboygan to view the windows and begin what many considered the opening of the Holiday Season.

As a young police officer many times on Thanksgiving Day I was assigned the hopeless task of trying to control traffic at 8th and Wisconsin while hordes of people descended on this location to look at the Prange Christmas windows.

It was especially bad during cold weather as people, instead of getting out of their cars to view the windows, passed by at 5 miles per hour in both directions on 8th Street. If I tried to speed them up and move them along to prevent a traffic jam people snarled, grumbled and complained. It made me feel a little bit like the Grinch who stole Christmas.

Then there was the year that the singing group “The Chipmunks” came out with a new recording for the Holiday Season which the Prange Company played over a loud speaker system outside the store. So, from 9am until the end of my shift at 3pm I got to listen to their squeaky little voices about 3,971 times.

To this very day whenever I hear a Chipmunk record played I think of a long, cold nerve wracking day. Scrooge here hates the Chipmunks!

In retrospect, the throngs of shoppers that once hurried back and forth doing their Christmas shopping at such merchants as Pranges, Hills, Pennys, Sears and a dozen others are gone. In fact most of the building’s they once occupied are now parking lots.

What 8th Street once was, will never be again but that’s progress, I guess.

Joy and I wish you and your family a Happy Thanksgiving.

Today’s Tidbit: Many of the old Prange animated Christmas window characters have been located and restored and are displayed annually at the Sheboygan County Historical Society Museum. Don’t forget to visit this year.

If you have any questions, comments or suggestions for a future column please feel free to contact me at 920-458-2974 or e-mail wangemann@yahoo.com

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