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Compulsory Thanksgiving – A Most Preposterous Thing?

by | Nov 23, 2018 | Davidson History, Top Right Box

Morrison Hall on the Davidson College Campus, which served as a gymnasium (Davidson College Archives)


The December 1895 issue of the Davidson Monthly contains an editorial protesting required attendance for a Thanksgiving service. After

“The Davidson Monthly” from December 1895 (Davidson College Archives)

noting that a survey the year before had revealed 78% of the student body opposed compulsory attendance for religious services, the editorial defended daily chapel before going on to declare, “A most preposterous things it is, to try to make a man thankful when he is not, and equally as preposterous, if he is thankful to make him declare his thankfulness in a way he would not.” and “evidently if thanksgiving be under constraint, it is no longer thanksgiving, but a mockery and a sham.”

Lest you think that November 1895 marked a gloomy day for Davidson students, a few pages later in the Local Department, the  student editorsreport on a full and entertaining time for students. While students could not leave campus for the holiday, they did make the time festive with a gymnasium exhibition and a fancy-dress skating carnival held in the YMCA building. They enjoyed an “excellent” sermon by the Reverend Graham and a game of football, followed by a play given by young ladies in town.

Up to the turn of the 20th century, the Davidson Monthly reported on Thanksgiving days spent skating, doing gymnasium exhibits, and even taking the Davidson Special into Charlotte for football games. In 1888, the Davidson Monthly noted that:

“On Wednesday night before Thanksgiving, an oyster supper was given by the ladies of the church, to raise funds for the parsonage. There was some difficulty in getting oysters, and when they did come, it was only a small quantity. However, about $40 were cleared. The supper was held at Mr. Williams’.”  In 1889, the young men of Davidson risked getting no pie as “the Committee on Inter-Society debates has arranged one for the night of Thanksgiving day…The debaters have selected “Woman Suffrage” for their subject, and the Societies invite all their lady friends here and elsewhere to be present.”

The Davidson Special, a train that went from Davidson to Charlotte (Davidson College Archives)

Thanksgivings in 1890 and 1893 were particularly festive. According to the Davidson Monthly in 1890, “On the night of thanksgiving the public debate came off, and the Philanthropic hall would not accommodate the crowd in attendance. The oyster supper the night before at Mrs. Stirewalt’s was quite a success. The visiting young ladies were prevailed on to stay over till Monday, and on Friday night Mrs. Shearer gave them a reception, also the boys, who brought girls. Although quickly gotten up, a nice supper greeted all. On Saturday night the boys held a reception in the Phi Hall. Mrs. Shearer kindly acted as chaperon, and the evening passed all too quickly. Miss Annie Crawford of Statesville college favored us with several recitations; also several of the college boys.”

Davidson College students performing their circus in front of Morrison Hall (Davidson College Archives)

The 1893 report begins, “Although no special effort was made to get up a program for Thanksgiving,” and continues  with a full slate of activities including “On Wednesday night before Thanksgiving the gymnasium class, under the  leadership of Mr. J.E. Brown of the Sophomore class, gave a very interesting and entertaining gymnastic exhibit; and, considering the short training of the class, certainly reflected credit upon themselves and their leader. Mr. W.W.  Williams, dressed in “fancy costume,” acted the clown, and by his clownish ways and ridiculous antics kept the spectators convulsed with laughter. Thanksgiving day dawned bright and clear, and at eleven o’clock all repaired to the church, where services were conducted by the pastor. Mr. Graham made an earnest appeal for the orphans at Barium Springs, and a collection of about fifty dollars was taken up for the same. In the afternoon a very interesting game of football was played between the Junior and Sophomore teams, resulting in a score of 12 to 0 in favor of the Juniors.  In the evening there was a skating carnival held in the gymnasium under the management of Doctors Currells and Smith and Messrs. Farr and McDowell. The first thing on the program was skating, participated in only by those in fancy costumes. Among the skaters we noticed Miss Gertrude Wood of Statesville, attired in Japanese costume, with Mr. L. C. Vass, the court jester; Miss Mary Sparrow of Davidson, attired as a fairy, with Mr. E. L.  Wilson, as an Indian chief; and Miss Lucy Martin of Statesville College, dressed in the Stars and Stripes, with Mr. J. D. McDowell, as a Continental gentleman.

After this a tournament was held, the men only taking part; the object being to catch as many rings as possible during a minute skate. Mr. L.C. Vass of Savannah was the victor. After the tournament, a new fashioned “cake walk” was instituted, about twenty-five couples participating. Two cakes were awarded–Misses Sue Hall and Lucy Martin of Statesville College being the winners. This closed the program for the evening, and on the following day the fair visitors who had made Thanksgiving so pleasant for Davidson students took their departure and the students, after a pleasant holiday, returned to the regular routine of college studies

A sign of changing times come in 1897 with the report that “for the first time in quite in a while there was no set entertainment for Thanksgiving, but the hospitable Mrs. W. J. Martin, not willing to let the day pass without some entertainment, gave a very informal party at her home in the evening. Notwithstanding the inclement weather, the invited were present, and a pleasant time was the result.”

Jan Blodgett

Jan Blodgett moved to Davidson in 1994. In 2017, she retired after 23 years as the Davidson College Archivist. Jan and former Davidson College history professor, Ralph Levering, are the co-authors of "One Town, Many Voices: A history of Davidson, North Carolina."

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