Thanksgiving Then and Now: How Traditions Have Changed Over the Years

Taking a closer look at the history behind the modern Thanksgiving.

MINNESOTA – For some, Thanksgiving continues to be an important day of the year filled with many time–honored family traditions.

For others, it’s just another day for football, turkey and mashed potatoes- hardly a celebration at all.

As Fox 21’s Viktoria Capek reports, the holiday has gone through quite a journey over the years.

“A lot of people have lived here their entire life and thanksgiving is a big part of our region and our culture, and we don’t want to give that up,” Monica Hendrickson said.

Minnesota is known to some as the birthplace of organized agriculture in America.

Midwest farmland has played a big part in the November celebration of Thanksgiving ever since president Abraham Lincoln declared it a national holiday in 1863.

“It was a difficult time, for one thing, because so many people thought they didn’t have things to be thankful for because of the civil war,” Oliver Kelley Farm interpreter ReNee Hanson said.

19th c. Thanksgiving wasn’t widely accepted at first, but for those who chose to celebrate it, it was usually a small family affair right on the farm.

“Things that you could get on your own farm is what your meal would have consisted of,” Hanson said.

Turkey wasn’t found in parts of Minnesota in those days, so chicken and pork were the centerpieces of a dinner table.

“They would have chosen back then what they needed to use first,” Hanson said.

The feast was picked based on the year’s harvest. Vegetables like potatoes and salsify, “the oyster plant,” and desserts like pumpkin pie and pudding often complemented the dinner and took several days to make.

“These people, they couldn’t leave their farms for an extended period of time. They had to feed the animals, stuff had to get done,” Hanson said. “A big part of that is the transition away from agriculture. In the 1800s, probably 80% of the population or better was in agriculture, they were farmers.”

The transition has been a decade’s long journey, but the question is, when did traditions change from farm animals to “Black Friday shopping?”

“I think now, we tend to think less about the food because we don’t have to think about the food as much, but we’re still thankful for all that we have,” Hanson said.

Today, Thanksgiving in the Northland moves just a little faster and typically looks more like a feast with four thousand of your closest friends.

The DECC Thanksgiving Day Buffet has invited families to celebrate together for 30 years.

“We have a couple gentlemen who drive up from the twin cities and they help with the turkeys. We have the guys that make the stuffing and we have the guys that do the potatoes and so it’s their tradition, too. It’s not necessarily just what’s happening for the community in terms of the food that’s being served, but it’s about the people that are making it,” Hendrickson, the DECC’s own turkey wrangler, said.

Nearly eight hundred volunteers, like Mike Dittmar, spend less time eating food and more time making it.

“Well, we get all the turkeys ready as we’re doing now, and then we make the stuffing,” Dittmar said.

Dittmar has been stuffing turkeys for 15 years.

“I used to do a lot of business up here when I was working, I’m retired now. I got to know the fellow from St. Scholastica that started this whole thing,” Dittmar said.

He’s just one part of the operation.

“We have a lot of volunteers that come in and peel potatoes and peel carrots and chop onions and celery and bread for the stuffing,” Hendrickson said. “It’s just everything you think Thanksgiving is going to be.”

Volunteers prepare all the Thanksgiving staples we know today.

“It’s carb-overload,” Hendrickson said.

The meal is a little less “farm to table” fresh than what was served at a Midwest Thanksgiving 150 years ago.

“I think every family comes up with their own traditions. There might be a similar vein through everybody’s traditions, it’s all around thanksgiving, but that means different things to different people,” Hanson said.

The food and the family traditions may have changed, but one thing that seems to have stayed the same during the holiday is the feeling.

“It’s really about that… Having a great meal, but having that sense of community spirit whether it’s with your friends and your neighbors that you’ve known for forever or meeting new people at the event,” Hendrickson said.

“Realizing that the people that came before us, they did a lot of amazing, difficult things so that we can have what we have. So I think, if we’re thankful for that, that’s a good start,” Hanson agreed.

The DECC Thanksgiving Day buffet will be open to the public Thursday, Nov. 28 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.

For more information on the Oliver Kelley Farm in Elk River, MN and what a “Yankee Thanksgiving” would have been like 150 years ago, click here.

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