Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia

Mikaela Maria

New Year’s Traditions

New Year's celebrations in the Philadelphia region have often included parties, formal wear, fireworks, and parades as part of a two-day, secular celebration from December 31 to January 1. The changing of a calendar year from one to the next has long been cause for commemoration and reflection, and the city’s diverse communities have shaped the holiday. Throughout Philadelphia’s history, New Year's celebrations have ranged from sacred to silly and occurred throughout the year as ethnic and religious groups gathered and shined light on their own traditions.

[caption id="attachment_25422" align="alignright" width="204"]a color trade card showing a cat wearing a starched ruffled collar and a bell around its neck. Text reads "Wishing you a Happy New Year! Wanamaker & Brown Collars and Neckwear" Local merchants took advantage of the holiday to advertise their wares. This card is from Wanamaker & Brown's Oak Hall, a precursor to the famed Wanamaker's Department Store. (Historical Society of Pennsylvania)[/caption]

When William Penn (1644-1718) founded Pennsylvania in 1681, Great Britain and her colonies were still using the Julian calendar, twelve months long but based on the solar year. Under this calendar, the New Year began on March 25, around the spring equinox. In 1751, Britain adopted the Gregorian calendar and the New Year began on January 1, 1752. Later in the year, eleven days between September 2 and September 14 were dropped in order to align completely with the Gregorian calendar. The first new year to fall in January in Philadelphia was January 1, 1752, the same day that famed Philadelphia flag maker Elizabeth “Betsy” Griscom Ross (1752-1836) was born.

During the colonial period, the New Year’s celebration was relatively quiet compared to twenty-first century parties and galas. Christmas celebrations had yet to be wholly commercialized and the extended holiday season was primarily spent attending church services, eating a meal with family, and paying visits to friends. Initially December 26, or “Second Day Christmas” as the Swedish call it, was the time to visit the homes of friends, but New Year’s Day also became a particularly popular time to call on loved ones. Neighbors often held open houses and provided punches, cakes, and good company for those who visited. Festivities included Dutch food traditions and sharing and eating New Year’s cake to bring good luck. Those of German background continued the tradition of eating pork on New Year’s into the twenty-first century, with the pig symbolizing progress with its snout pushed forward into the ground.

[caption id="attachment_25423" align="alignright" width="231"]A black and white illustration of a large, rowdy crowd of costumed revelers in the streets of philadelphia The Mummers Parade was not organized as an official city event until 1901. Before then, loosely organized and rowdy groups of mummers went door to door performing in exchange for food, drink, or tips. (Historical Society of Pennsylvania)[/caption]

When Philadelphia served as the capital of the United States during the 1790s, President George Washington (1732-99) began the official tradition of visiting homes on New Year’s Day. While the president called on friends, groups of men known as mummers celebrated in their own way. The mumming tradition can be traced to ancient Rome and Greece, however its modern roots stem from a mixture of English, Scottish, German, Irish, and French traditions that culminated in the distinctly Philadelphian pasttime. Mummers, often groups of working-class men, roamed the streets singing, dancing, and performing as clowns or minstrels. The men would go door to door, in a fashion somewhat similar to modern Halloween trick-or-treating, and sang songs to receive food and drink. Some found the mummers entertaining and enjoyable, while others found them to be obnoxious drunks. By 1808, masquerading was considered a public nuisance and a punishable offense.

For Philadelphia’s Methodist population, New Year’s Eve meant holding a night of prayer and reflection inside their church, often referred to as a watch night. These watch nights trace their Methodist history to 1770, where the first Watch Night was held in St. George’s Methodist Church at 235 N. Fourth Street. Religious observances served to distract participants from the revelry outside, since the mummers continued their activities into the 1850s, when the public nuisance law was repealed.

[caption id="attachment_25421" align="alignright" width="300"]A photograph of mummers -- men dressed in elaborate, colorful costumes -- walking down Broad Street with City Hall in the background The annual Mummers Parade is one of the most famous–and colorful–of Philadelphia's New Year's traditions. (M. Edlow for Visit Philadelphia)[/caption]

Mummery became popular again after the Civil War, and by 1888 the once haphazard gangs had formed organized clubs. Small parades took place in the last decade of the nineteenth century, and by 1901 the first officially sponsored Mummers Parade took place. Over the next century the Mummers Parade became a symbol of New Year’s Day in Philadelphia, often drawing a large number of participants and spectators on January 1.

In the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, New Year’s celebrations at the end of December have continued the spirit of merrymaking that was once frowned upon by the elite class. Philadelphia’s own Dick Clark (1929-2012), producer and host of American Bandstand, hosted the televised Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve from 1974 to 2004, and again from 2006 until his death in 2012. Held in New York City’s iconic Times Square, the event’s central focus was the countdown to midnight, accompanied by a gigantic crystal ball that “dropped” as spectators watched.

Around Greater Philadelphia in the early decades of the twenty-first century, cities and towns hosted their own countdowns and “dropped” a number of objects to welcome the new year. In 2014, Kennett Square, Chester County, dropped a steel mushroom, to signify the borough’s place as “Mushroom Capital of the World.” Annually in Lancaster and York, Pennsylvania, the drop featured roses, red and white, respectively, while Lebanon, Pennsylvania, dropped a piece of famed Lebanon bologna. North of Philadelphia, Allentown dropped a replica of the Liberty Bell, to symbolize the time the bell was stored there during the American Revolution. In Center City Philadelphia, there was no ball dropping, but revelers watched fireworks displays over the Delaware River and attended parties at Penn’s Landing as well as the Adventure Aquarium in Camden, New Jersey. Along the Jersey Shore, families gathered at many beach towns, while Cape May’s Congress Hall hosted the annual Glitter Ball and Atlantic City’s clubs and casinos threw parties. For those who preferred to stay inside on New Year’s Eve, television broadcasts brought Philadelphia’s fireworks displays in to homes across the area, where families and friends gathered to ring in the new year together.

[caption id="attachment_25420" align="alignright" width="300"]a color photograph of a lion dance in Chinatown showing dancers wielding large chinese lion puppets and smoke clouds from firecrackers Chinese immigrants brought the Lunar New Year celebrations to Philadelphia. The holiday is marked by loud, boisterous lion dances, where revelers wield traditional puppets and set off streams of firecrackers. (Photograph by M. Edlow for Visit Philadelphia)[/caption]

Ethnic and religious diversity introduced different or additional New Year’s festivities. In late September or early October, Philadelphians of Jewish faith celebrated Rosh Hashanah, which marks the transition from one year to the next, based on their traditional lunar calendar. Chinese communities worldwide celebrated their lunar New Year, also known as the Chinese New Year, about a month after the civil calendar celebration. The Chinese New Year falls on first new moon sometime between January 21 and February 20. In Philadelphia’s Chinatown neighborhood, a vibrant parade and celebrations marked the occasion and continued for fiften days after the new moon.

In Philadelphia’s African American communities, Kwanzaa was annually celebrated from December 26 to January 1. Created by Maulana Karenga (1941-), the secular holiday was the first specifically African American holiday and it culminated in feasts and gift giving. Although Kwanzaa ended on January 1 it was not specifically a New Year’s celebration. That title went to the ODUNDE Festival, which began in 1975 and takes its name from the word meaning “Happy New Year” in the Yoruba language of Nigeria and was held the second Sunday in June. Although based on the Yoruba Oshun Festival, the celebration encouraged cultural pride among all Africans around the world. During ODUNDE, thousands of participants and spectators gathered annually near Twenty-Third and South Streets to highlight their history and heritage as they welcomed a new year.

Whatever the month, and encompassing all traditions of diverse populations, New Year’s celebrations have offered a time for Philadelphians to reflect, revel, and focus on their plans for the year ahead.

Mikaela Maria is an editorial, research, and digital publishing assistant for The Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia. She received her M.A. from Rutgers University and works as a public historian and museum professional in Philadelphia.

Mother’s Day

First rising to popularity in Philadelphia, Mother's Day has been formally observed on the second Sunday in May since 1914 and celebrated in the United States for even longer. Serving various purposes since the late nineteenth century, Mother’s Day has deep connections to religion, war, feminism, and consumerism. For over a century, the meaning and purpose of Mother’s Day has been used and contested to celebrate individual mothers, enfranchise women, boost congregation numbers, and sell goods, among other purposes.

[caption id="attachment_21260" align="alignright" width="228"]Bust-length, sepia-tone portrait of Anna Jarvis facing slightly left. The formal celebration of Mother’s Day in the United States is often attributed to Anna Jarvis, who lived in Philadelphia as an adult, shown here in around 1900. (Historical Society of Pennsylvania)[/caption]

The formal celebration of Mother’s Day in the United States is often attributed to Anna Jarvis (1862-1948), a Philadelphia woman determined to commemorate her own mother with a national observance. However, Jarvis was not the first woman to propose a holiday honoring mothers, nor the first woman to engage Philadelphia society in the holiday’s celebration. In 1870, thirty years before Jarvis’s campaign, Julia Ward Howe (1819-1910) founded Women’s Journal, a weekly publication in Boston, and featured her Mother’s Day Proclamation that same year. An activist, Howe intended to use Mother’s Day as a call to women to promote peace both in their homes and politically in the wake of the American Civil War, which had permanently separated so many mothers from their children. In 1872, Howe called for Mother’s Day to be celebrated on June 2, and between 1873 and 1913 several American cities held annual services on that day. In Philadelphia, the Universal Peace Union (UPU), a group dedicated to ending war and eradicating the American military, faithfully celebrated Howe’s holiday for four decades. Records of the UPU’s commemorations were kept and published in the organization’s magazines, The Voice of Peace and The Peacemaker and Court of Arbitration.

Despite its relatively positive reception, Howe’s holiday did not reach widespread audiences and her call for an end to war was, for many, too radical. Initially, many UPU members believed women’s equality was crucial to securing world peace, but by the turn of the twentieth century the group shifted focus and downplayed the political role of mothers, encouraging instead cooperation and collaboration between male and female activists. By 1906, the UPU was sponsoring the celebration of “Peace Day” in the Philadelphia school system. By Howe’s death in 1910 the politically active, women-led peace movement she had begun evolved into a new kind of Mother’s Day, influenced and spearheaded by Philadelphian Anna Jarvis.

Anna Jarvis’s Mother’s Day

Jarvis, born in West Virginia, was the tenth child of Granville and Ann Jarvis and their first daughter to live past infancy. She moved to Philadelphia with her brother when she was twenty-eight years old and became an editor at Fidelity Life Insurance Company. When her mother’s health began to decline, Jarvis moved her to Philadelphia and cared for her until her death on May 9, 1905. Jarvis went into a long period of mourning that lasted more than two years and culminated in her newly imagined Mother’s Day observance in 1908.

Jarvis envisioned the day as a way to honor and commemorate her “unselfish Christian mother,” who gave all for her children. Jarvis’s Mother’s Day differed from Howe’s substantially, as Jarvis advocated that individuals “honor the mother of their own heart” and pay no mind to women’s work beyond motherhood. Using her business connections in Philadelphia, Jarvis put together a wealthy group of supporters to sit on a Mother’s Day Committee. Members included department store owner John Wanamaker (1838-1922) and food-processing magnate H.J. Heinz (1844-1919). By 1908, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported that many in the city were observing Mother’s Day.

[caption id="attachment_21261" align="alignright" width="213"]Front of paper program with bust-length portrait of Ann Reeves Jarvis, head turned slightly right. A portrait of Ann Reeves Jarvis adorns the program for the first official Mother’s Day service, held on the second Sunday in May 1908 at the church where Ann taught Sunday School for over twenty years. (West Virginia and Regional History Center, WVU Libraries)[/caption]

Jarvis, who never married or became a mother, committed most of her time to the Mother’s Day cause, writing letters to state and federal legislators and beseeching Congress to declare the holiday official. Although many supported the idea of Mother’s Day, legislators were not keen to vote on the issue. One called the subject “not suitable for legislation,” while others wittily suggested a “mother-in-law’s day.” It was not until Jarvis had the backing of the Protestant Sunday School movement that her holiday garnered major attention and observation.

In an effort to publicize Mother’s Day, Anna Jarvis reached out to George W. Bailey (1840-1911), a chairman of the executive committee of the World’s Sunday School Association. Bailey saw potential in a church-led celebration of Mother’s Day, and in 1910 the association endorsed the holiday. Sunday school participation on Mother’s Day was a logical next step for Bailey and his colleagues, as children enjoyed celebrating special occasions and their mothers highly approved of themed lessons on appreciation and respect for parents. As churches embraced Mother’s Day they saw Sunday School attendance rise, and according to a May 1913 issue of the Presbyterian Advance, the high turnout could help ministers “reach the unchurched and the occasional church-attendant.” The popularity of Mother’s Day grew quickly, and in 1914 President Woodrow Wilson (1856-1924) officially proclaimed the second Sunday in May as Mother’s Day.

Changing Meanings

[caption id="attachment_21262" align="alignright" width="300"]Black line drawing of an American soldier sitting on the edge of his trench during World War I writing a letter to his mother. On Mother’s Day 1918, General John Pershing requested that all soldiers take a moment to write letters to their mothers. This cartoon by Clifford Berryman evokes the spirit of Pershing’s request. (National Archives and Records Administration)[/caption]

In the decade following 1914, Mother’s Day was widely celebrated, participation increased each year, and Jarvis was heralded as “the founder of Mother’s Day” in newspapers and advertisements across the county. During this decade, businesses began using the holiday for marketing purposes. In 1913, John Wanamaker’s department store became one of the first businesses to host a Mother’s Day celebration that included music and flowers for customers. In 1916, an advertisement for Snellenburg’s department store in Philadelphia suggested purchasing mother a Victrola, made in neighboring Camden, New Jersey, and greeting card. Printers, florists, chocolatiers and others soon followed suit and began to sell goods for Mother’s Day. During the First World War, Mother’s Day celebrations highlighted connections between motherhood, war, and women’s political and patriotic duties. On Mother’s Day 1918, General John Pershing (1860-1948) requested that all soldiers take a moment to write letters to their mothers. That same year, President Wilson commended American mothers for offering their sons to the United States military, echoing Howe’s sentiments that mothers sacrifice the most in times of war.

Initially, Jarvis was on good terms with businesses that pushed the Mother’s Day message, especially in the early years when her movement lacked support. However, over subsequent decades as more companies used and, in Jarvis’s view, abused the message of Mother’s Day, Jarvis fought to reclaim her holiday’s meaning by writing letters, taking out ads, and copyrighting the phrase “Mother’s Day.” She also objected to the way that the American War Mothers, formed in 1917, used Mother’s Day to fund-raise and further their own cause. Jarvis became so incensed by the societal changes to Mother’s Day that in 1933 she wrote to President Franklin Roosevelt (1882-1945) to beseech him to remove the holiday from the nation’s official calendar.

Modern Traditions

[caption id="attachment_21264" align="alignright" width="300"]Color photograph of men, women, and children ascending three steps with gardens on either side. Mother’s Day often corresponds with some of the first outdoor events of the year. The families in this photograph are attending the Azalea Festival held on Mother’s Day in Hamilton Township, New Jersey. (Township of Hamilton )[/caption]

Jarvis spent the last years of her life in Marshall Square Sanitarium in West Chester, Pennsylvania, where she died in 1948. Despite rampant commercialization, in the twenty-first century the holiday she promoted remained a day for putting mothers first and appreciating their hard work and sacrifice. Internationally, many countries adopted the American holiday over the course of the twentieth century and many others hold their own celebrations of women and motherhood (for example, Mothering Sunday in Great Britain and International Women’s Day in many former Communist countries). In Philadelphia and the surrounding region, groups and businesses offered traditional celebrations such as Mother’s Day tea, brunch, dinners, church picnics, and shopping and spa trips.Activist events, such as feminist political lectures, mother-daughter martial arts classes, and even demonstrations on behalf of women’s health have also taken place. The mid-May celebration also corresponded with some of the first outdoor events of the year, including the Azalea Festival in Hamilton Township, New Jersey, and outdoor music festivals in Atlantic City and Wildwood, New Jersey.

The annual celebration of Mother’s Day in Philadelphia and the United States can be understood as a holiday with complex meanings. Though not entirely true to Jarvis’s vision, or Howe’s for that matter, the holiday has reflected changing attitudes toward motherhood, femininity, domesticity, religion, and patriotism, while still holding fast to the celebration of motherly love and sacrifice.

Mikaela Maria is an editorial, research, and digital publishing assistant for The Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia. She recently received her M.A. from Rutgers University and works as a public historian and museum professional in Philadelphia.

Saint Patrick’s Day

In March, Philadelphians of many backgrounds join together to celebrate Saint Patrick’s Day, the city’s Irish citizens, and their heritage. Celebrated in Philadelphia since 1771, the holiday began as a Catholic holy day and evolved into a rambunctious affair marked throughout the region by parades, music, dancing, drinking, and wearing kelly-green clothing to symbolize the Irish flag. Over time, Saint Patrick’s Day reflected political, religious, military, and secular themes as Philadelphia became a hub for Irish immigrants and generations of Irish-American families.

[caption id="attachment_20137" align="alignright" width="300"]Color photograph of the Irish Memorial statue. The statue is about thirty feet wide and has many figures carved in to its bronze surface. An older couple, a man and woman, are looking at the statue with their backs to the camera. Ireland’s Great Hunger of the 1840s, also known as the potato famine, potato blight, or Great Famine, drove thousands of Irish to Philadelphia in search of economic prosperity and political freedom. The Irish Memorial at Penn's Landing commemorates the migration. (Photograph by R. Kennedy for Visit Philadelphia)[/caption]

The holiday is named for Saint Patrick, born around 387 CE in Roman-controlled Britain, who is credited with bringing Catholicism to Ireland in the early fifth century. As a bishop, Patrick traveled the island for decades to convert former pagans and druids to Catholicism and create churches. After his death in 461 CE, Patrick was canonized and Catholics observed his death day, March 17, as his feast day, or day dedicated to his memory. As time passed, Patrick became known as the patron saint of Ireland, believed to take special care of the Irish from his place in heaven. His feast day became a holy day of obligation (to attend Mass) for Catholics in Ireland. By the seventeenth century, as Protestant settlers from Britain continued to gain control in Ireland, Saint Patrick and his feast day were bound to Irish-Catholic identity and pride. Emigrants from Ireland carried these traditions with them to the New World.

The Irish were among the earliest immigrants to Philadelphia. Although the highest numbers of Irish arrived during the years of the potato famine (1845-52), Irish Philadelphians contributed to social and cultural life in the city before and during the American Revolution. On March 17, 1771, a group of Irishmen founded the Society of the Friendly Sons of St. Patrick for the Relief of Emigrants from Ireland, a civic organization dedicated to helping Irish immigrants and celebrating their patron saint by hosting a dinner each March 17. Members of the society included Commodore John Barry (1745-1803) and General John Cadwalader (1742-86). President George Washington (1732-99) was made an honorary member in 1782, in recognition of his decree on March 16, 1779, that his troops, many of them Irish, were to take Saint Patrick’s Day off to celebrate and rest after a long, harsh winter at war.

Political Overtones

In the early nineteenth century, the Friendly Sons’ annual dinner gained popularity as the Irish immigrant population grew. The event also gained political overtones amid anger over English oppression of the Irish back home and fierce pride in a new, free American identity. By the 1830s, March 17 celebrations included rallies against English rule of the motherland and appeals to attendees to use their American liberty to secure rights for others. In 1837, from the steps of the Franklin Institute on Seventh Street just below Market Street, Joseph Doran urged his fellow Irishmen to “... call forth then your powers and assist your fellow citizens in preserving those liberties which you are permitted to enjoy.”

[caption id="attachment_20134" align="alignright" width="199"]Scan of a ballad sheet titled "The Wearing of the Green". Lyrics are typed in the middle of the page. A longstanding Irish tradition, “The Wearing of the Green” originally referred to wearing a shamrock in one’s hat on or a jacket lapel and has roots in the seventeenth century, when wearing symbols of Catholicism or support for the Irish Republic was forbidden in Ireland. (Library Company of Philadelphia)[/caption]

When the Great Famine, also known as the potato famine, hit Ireland in 1845 thousands of peasant farmers left for the United States. By 1850, 72,000 people of Irish descent lived in Philadelphia and the influx of often poor, Catholic immigrants met with backlash from “native” Philadelphians, who sought to protect their own social status by excluding the Irish from economic, social, and civic opportunity. By 1859, however, Irish Philadelphians began forming organizations similar to the Friendly Sons to carve places for themselves within the city. As an expression of their loyalty and respectability, many groups formed military units, a right unknown in Ireland and a symbol of their new freedom. March 17 soon became associated with military infantry and formations, as many groups wore full regalia to celebrate their heritage.

Following the Civil War, Irish Americans cited their service to the United States to prove their worth to their fellow countrymen, and anti-Irish rhetoric quieted down substantially. Parades, a popular form of entertainment in this era, became fixtures of the annual celebration. Parades drew large crowds, and the Irish took advantage of the attention to spread messages of importance to their communities and beyond. For example, the 1870 parade included temperance organizations spreading the message of abstinence from alcohol—a cause embraced by many Irish women because of alcohol-related problems within their families.

After several cancellations during the Great Depression and World War II, the Philadelphia Saint Patrick’s Day parade revived in the 1950s with greater focus on the holiday’s religious origins. Philadelphia’s Irish population had been decreasing, with fewer citizens participating in Irish-Catholic political or spiritual life, since the creation of the Republic of Ireland in 1922 and the National Origins Act of 1924. In 1952, the Saint Patrick’s Day Observance Association, organized in cooperation with the Ancient Order of Hibernians, Archbishop John F. O’Hara (1888-1960), the Catholic schools network, and other fraternal societies, began planning the first “official” Saint Patrick’s Day Parade. Conceived as a religious event, by 1954 parade rules stated first and foremost that “any group participating in the Parade must be of Catholic character.” The parade’s executive committee included political leaders, police officers, firefighters, and independent business owners, who raised funds for the event through the sale of flags and badges to participants, vendor fees, and donations from Catholic parishes. The 1953 parade, the first planned by official committee, attracted a reported 65,000 individual participants and 100,000 spectators along the parade route, which began on South Broad Street near Washington Avenue and ended on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, outside the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Parade Popularity Grows, as Do Costs

As the parade became increasingly popular, the need for increased funding conflicted with the religious roots of the celebration. Parade costs more than doubled, reaching a price tag of $7,000 by 1965. Fund-raising luncheons helped, but without business investments and city money the budget was still tight. Organizers disagreed about whether to allow businesses to advertise on floats or whether non-Irish and non-Catholic groups should participate, although diversity could draw bigger crowds. By 1978 the city’s Recreation Department made a donation and some non-Irish groups joined the parade.

[caption id="attachment_20138" align="alignright" width="225"]Color photograph of a group of men playing bagpipes. They are wearing kilts and other traditional Irish clothing. Behind them city hall and a large crowd of spectators is visible. For decades, Philadelphia’s Saint Patrick’s Day parade has celebrated Irish heritage through song, dance, costume, and general revelry. (Photo by R. Kennedy for Visit Philadelphia)[/caption]

By the end of the twentieth century, the parade, still run by the nonprofit Saint Patrick’s Day Observance Association, represented Philadelphia’s variety of experience with Saint Patrick’s Day. Annual luncheons, dinners, and speaking engagements drew upper-class crowds, and early-morning church services drew practicing Catholics, but the parade, beginning near City Hall, drew Philadelphians of all backgrounds to the Parkway. Live musicians and dancers, colorful floats, candy, and rows of vendors added to the revelry, and the party atmosphere tended to obscure the religious roots of the holiday. Unlike the temperance marchers of 1888, many attendees viewed alcohol consumption to be a crucial component of the day, making bar crawls or house parties popular destinations after the parade. This aspect of the holiday could be contentious, leading some to criticize the parade as a source of public drunkenness, vandalism, and underage drinking.

Philadelphia claimed the largest parade in the Greater Philadelphia area, but in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries many smaller cities and towns also celebrated their Irish heritage in mid-March. Springfield, in Delaware County, hosted an annual Saint Patrick’s Day parade, as did Levittown in Bucks County. Bucks County also became home to the six-day Newtown Irish Festival while West Chester, in Chester County, hosted a Celtic pub-crawl and businesses across the area offered specials on traditional Irish-American cuisine such as corned beef, cabbage, and potato dishes. In southern New Jersey, shore towns Atlantic City, Seaside Heights, and Wildwood hosted parades and in Burlington County, Mount Holly appointed one young women “Miss Saint Patrick” and provided her a scholarship and a prominent place in its parade.

Whether drawn by religious affiliation, Irish heritage, or the prospect of a good party, in the early decades of the twenty-first century Saint Patrick’s Day celebrators found a sense of camaraderie and shared experience among the crowds. The popular narrative of Irish perseverance in the face of adversity and the proud celebration of a resilient culture resonated with many Philadelphians, even those who did not share the same ethnicity or faith. Once a religious holiday and a political parade, Saint Patrick’s Day transformed over two centuries into a largely secular celebration reflecting the changing culture of Philadelphia’s Irish population and of the city at large.

Mikaela Maria is an editorial, research, and digital publishing assistant for The Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia. She received her M.A. from Rutgers University and works as a public historian and museum professional in Philadelphia.


[caption id="attachment_18309" align="alignright" width="210"]Portrait of Sarah Josepha Hale. She is seated in a chair and the image depicts her from the waist up. Her hair is dark and shoulder length and she wears a dark dress and a light colored piece of lace scarf on her head. Sarah Josepha Hale was the editor for Godey’s Lady’s Book for four decades. During that time she presided over publication of a wide range of topics including short stories, fashion and recipes, and lobbied for the holiday of Thanksgiving. (Library Company of Philadelphia)[/caption]

Although inspired by a 1621 feast shared by Pilgrims and Native Americans in Plymouth, Massachusetts, Thanksgiving traditions emerged from more than two centuries of celebrations influenced by social classes, ethnic groups, and the rise of consumer culture. Some of the most popular practices of Thanksgiving by the twenty-first century originated in Philadelphia.

In colonial America, days dedicated to giving thanks occurred at various times throughout the year and often reflected the traditions and desires of the regions that observed them. The end of the Revolutionary War provided ample opportunity for celebration across the new Republic, and days of public thanks-giving were declared nationally and locally. In Philadelphia, the Continental Congress declared a day of thanks-giving in October 1781 to honor the recent victory at the Battle of Yorktown and again on December 11, 1783, to celebrate the peace treaty and the formal end of the war. For the 1783 celebration, the Committee of Arrangements asked Charles Willson Peale (1741-1827), one of Philadelphia’s most popular artists, to create a triumphal arch “illuminated by about twelve-hundred lamps” to stand outside the State House as the celebration’s center piece. Although delayed by a fireworks accident that damaged the work in progress, by 1784 the completed arch “afforded great satisfaction to many thousand spectators.”

During the 1790s, while Philadelphia served as capital of the United States, Presidents George Washington (1732-99) and John Adams (1735-1826) issued ad hoc declarations for national days of thanks-giving. However, in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, it was more common for states, cities, or other localities to hold thanks-giving celebrations in their own ways at any given time during the year. Philadelphia’s upper- and middle-class families celebrated days of thanks-giving in ways similar to New Englanders, by having small family dinners and attending church services to thank God for the blessings in their lives. Working-class Philadelphians developed a reputation for rowdy, drunken, carnivalesque street celebrations. The parading groups, who called themselves Fantastics or Fantasticals, were often of Irish or English background and copied many of the English mumming parade techniques. For the most part, the upper classes accepted the parades and enjoyed watching, if not partaking in, the festivities through most of the nineteenth century.

Thanksgiving Campaign

Support for a national Thanksgiving holiday grew from a campaign launched by Sarah Josepha Hale (1788-1879), editor of the Philadelphia-published Godey’s Lady’s Book. Hale, a native of New Hampshire who became the magazine’s editor in 1837, believed that a national day dedicated to giving thanks might unify the country at a time of intensifying sectional divisiveness. Using her position at the popular monthly publication, Hale wrote to governors across the country and in U.S. territories to make a case for a holiday celebrating “the gratified hospitality, the obliging civility, and unaffected happiness of the American family.” Initially, Hale’s efforts did not do much to boost support for the domestic holiday. By the 1850s only New England, the Mid-Atlantic, and the state of Texas regularly celebrated.

[caption id="attachment_18307" align="alignright" width="300"]Color scan of a lithograph, depicting a group of about 10 young men and a few women, standing outside a snow-roofed house. Some men have guns and one dead turkey lays on the snowy ground. Mountains, trees, and another hunting party can be seen in the distance. As Thanksgiving gained popularity across the country, many Americans looked to New England’s early celebrations for inspiration and affirmation of heritage. (Library Company of Philadelphia)[/caption]

Hale’s initiative achieved success in the midst of the Civil War, in the aftermath of Union victory at the Battle of Gettysburg. In October 1863, President Abraham Lincoln (1809-65), whom Hale had been petitioning for years, declared a national day of thanksgiving to take place each November. Although Southern states took longer than Northern states to accept and participate in the new national tradition, Thanksgiving became increasingly popular, and Hale’s vision for a domestic holiday centered on family and home life took root.

As the holiday took on a more sober tone, members of the upper classes became increasingly upset by the loud, drunken celebrations of the working class in cities like Philadelphia and New York. Among wealthier individuals, organized football games became an alternative to rowdy parades. The first Thanksgiving Day football game, played between the Young American Cricket Club and the Germantown Cricket Club, took place in Philadelphia in 1869. A few years later, the Intercollegiate Football Association scheduled its first championship game for Thanksgiving Day in 1876. By the turn of the century roughly 10,000 college and high school football teams were playing games on Thanksgiving Day. In Philadelphia, rivals Central High School and Northeast High School competed for the Wooden Horse Trophy on Thanksgiving Day. This annual competition began in 1892 and continued into the twenty-first century as Philadelphia’s oldest high school rivalry. In Southern New Jersey, Palmyra High School and Burlington City High School have been rivals since 1908 and have competed on Thanksgiving Day since the 1930s.

The Holiday Becomes Secularized

By the early twentieth century, Thanksgiving traditions were firmly embedded in American culture. The Catholic Church initially opposed the celebration of Thanksgiving as a Protestant religious holiday. However, the holiday became secularized as new groups of immigrants arrived during the early twentieth century. Schools taught Thanksgiving traditions to children, whose families then reinforced their American identities by participating in the national observance and demonstrating their allegiance to American culture.

By the 1920s, Catholic and Jewish households readily accepted the holiday, and intertwined their own religious practices, like service to the poor, with the Thanksgiving Day tradition. Immigrant families infused the traditional meal of roasted turkey with their own contributions by introducing new side dishes and cooking styles. Some Chinese American families steamed their turkeys and then stuffed them with traditional rice mixtures, while Greek families added pine nuts and spices to their stuffing and many Italian families enjoyed seafood and pasta dishes.

As the holiday grew in popularity, new traditions emerged. The first formal Thanksgiving Day parade, held in Philadelphia in 1920, marked the beginning of the holiday’s commercialization and cemented its ties to the Christmas season. Eager for the Christmas shopping season to begin, Ellis Gimbel (1865-1950) of Gimbels Department Store organized the first parade to lead shoppers from City Hall to the store at Ninth and Market Streets. In the grand finale, Santa Claus climbed a ladder into the building, where he greeted children eager to give him their wish lists. The Gimbels parade influenced Macy’s to begin its own parade in New York City in 1924, and by the mid-twentieth century Thanksgiving Day parades, often sponsored by department stores, became a tradition in towns and cities across the country. Over the next few decades Thanksgiving became increasingly commercialized as the official beginning of the Christmas season. By the second half of the twentieth century, the following Friday became known as “Black Friday” among retailers and consumers, and many stores offered large discounts and one-day sales to kick off their holiday shopping season.

[caption id="attachment_18306" align="alignright" width="300"]Photograph taken from the middle of the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, looking towards City Hall, which is in the distance. A large crowd covers the street and a colorful Madeiline balloon floats over the crowd. Colorful flags for various countries line the parkway on either side, elevated above the crowd. By the twenty-first century, Philadelphia’s Thanksgiving parade continued to attract large crowds, as seen in this 2013 photograph. Area schools and institutions participated in the procession, as did local businesses and media corporations. (Photograph by M. Kennedy for Visit Philadelphia)[/caption]

New Parade Sponsors

As department stores declined in popularity the Thanksgiving Day Parade continued, but with new sponsors, routes, and audiences. After Gimbels closed in 1986, Philadelphia television station WPVI (6ABC) took over production of the parade. The parade retained its commercial character from sponsorship by Reading, Pennsylvania-based department store Boscov’s from 1986 to 2007; IKEA (a Swedish company with a flagship store in Conshohocken) from 2008 to 2011; and Dunkin’ Donuts beginning in 2011. However, its route shifted away from Philadelphia’s traditional Center City business district to the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. Culminating at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the televised event provided ample marketing opportunities for sponsors and advertisers seeking to reach the estimated 500,000 households tuning in to watch the 3.5-hour parade. Around the region, many stores opened earlier and earlier to accommodate Black Friday shoppers. With so many retail employees required to report to work on Thursday evening, many families celebrated in the late morning or chose to celebrate on a different day.

A reflection of American values, Thanksgiving Day traditions evolved over time while still retaining the initial celebratory, familial, and domestic themes of the original thanks-giving feasts. Philadelphia, a city of many firsts, contributed many innovations to Thanksgiving Day traditions as they came to be practiced across the nation.

Mikaela Maria is an editorial, research, and digital publishing assistant for The Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia. She received her M.A. from Rutgers University and works as a public historian and museum professional in Philadelphia.

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