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In Fairfield, a tradition of giving thanks before 'Thanksgiving'

Updated 8:14 am, Friday, November 23, 2012

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  • President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed the first official observance of Thanksgiving as a national holday on Nov. 26, 1863. Photo: Contributed Photo / Fairfield Citizen contributed
    President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed the first official observance of Thanksgiving as a national holday on Nov. 26, 1863. Photo: Contributed Photo

 

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Once upon a time in early Fairfield, Thanksgiving -- or its earliest version -- was an observance that occurred more often than once a year.

"What's important to understand historically, because of the religious orientation of the early settlers. ... Proclaiming a day of Thanksgiving was a thing that happened fairly often and was meant as a religious occasion primarily," according to Elizabeth Rose, library director for the Fairfield Museum and History Center.

The early Puritan settlers of Fairfield -- or Uncoway, as it was then known nearly four centuries ago -- only later combined this practice with the concept of a fall harvest celebration, as it began to be recognized by the governor of the Connecticut colony as early as 1649 -- 10 years after the Fairfield settlement was officially incorporated.

"The community would gather together to express their gratitude to God because they saw God's hand in everything," Rose said. "The flip side of that was when something bad happened, they saw that as a sign of a lack of faith." In those times, people would devote days to penitence or fasting.

More than 200 years later, during the Civil War, Thanksgiving was being celebrated annually in most states, but not necessarily on the same day.

It was magazine editor Sarah Hale -- the same woman who wrote the poem, "Mary Had a Little Lamb" -- who urged President Abraham Lincoln to institute the observance as a national holiday.

Owing in large part to the national disunity felt during the war, Lincoln decided to sign a proclamation declaring the first official, national Thanksgiving on Nov. 26, 1863.

On Friday, the museum is offering a program called "Thanksgiving with Lincoln," from noon to 3 p.m., featuring family-friendly activities and crafts. Coinciding with the release of Steven Spielberg's new movie "Lincoln," starring Daniel Day-Lewis, the museum is also featuring an exhibit called "Promise of Freedom," which runs through Feb. 24. The exhibit, which celebrates the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, has on display one of the few existing original copies of the document.

"Particularly with the Lincoln movie coming out, it's very timely," said Michael Jehle, director of the museum. "This is a tremendous honor for Fairfield and this region to share this document with the public. It's very rare and it's one of the most important documents in American history."

"There are about 25 or 24 copies left," he said. "This particular one is owned by a private collector in Greenwich, and he very kindly saw us as a wonderful museum to share it with the community on this anniversary."

The collector asked to remain anonymous.

Since the official observance of Thanksgiving officially began, it has continued to grow deep-rooted traditions, which differ region to region and, of course, family to family.

Beginning in 1819, one Fairfield family -- that of Eben and Hannah Burr -- started the tradition of Pie Night, which involved family and friends visiting one another's house and indulging in a variety of homemade pies.

While that tradition passed on with the older generation, Rose said it has, on occasion, been known to re-emerge in town.