Last year, Princeton University extended its Thanksgiving break, after lengthy discussions on the merits of canceling Wednesday classes before the holiday. Now, students have the equivalent of a five day weekend to observe Thanksgiving. Most will probably leave campus for feasts involving turkey and cranberry sauce, but that hasn’t always been the Princeton way.
Thanksgiving has meant football and fun in the city rather than turkey and time with family to many students in the University’s past. As the Tiger explained in 1892, “The day of days of the football season is, of course, Thanksgiving. The customs of the day have changed somewhat … Empty chairs are plentiful at the erst-while all important dinner.” The dedication to football is further revealed in a 1920 proposal to shorten the Thanksgiving break to allow time off from classes at other times in the semester to accommodate other football games. Princeton typically played Yale in New York on Thanksgiving day, a tradition so revered that in 1892, Princeton rebuffed Harvard’s offer of a Thanksgiving game. (Harvard responded by refusing to play Princeton at all.) (“Yale-Princeton Thanksgiving Day 1893,” Athletic Programs Collection (AC042), Box 1, Folder 1) “Thoughts of the quiet home-scenes and the usual Thanksgiving turkey fade before the highly-wrought enthusiasm incident to the game with Yale.” (Tiger November 26, 1891, p. 32)
The Princeton-Yale Thanksgiving game was so popular that it became a source of revenue for New York’s merchants, who decorated their shops with Princeton orange and black, as well as Yale blue. In 1893, Harper’s Weekly referred to the Princeton-Yale game as “the greatest sporting event and spectacle combined that this country has to show. … No one who does not live in New York can understand how completely it colors and lays its hold upon that city, how it upsets and overturns its thoroughfares, and disturbs its rapid routine of existence, and very few even of those who do live in New York can explain just why this is so; they can only accept it as the fact.” New Yorkers, too, were more inclined to view Thanksgiving as the day Princeton played Yale, rather than as a day for feasting: “The significance of that day, which once centered in New England around a grateful family … now centers in Harlem about 22 very dirty and very earnest young men who are trying to force a leather ball over a whitewashed line.” New York “surrenders herself to the students and their game as she never welcomes any other event, except a presidential election.”
Charles V. Kidd ’35 wrote in his diary about seeing a football game on Thanksgiving in 1930: “It wasn’t such hot football, but we had fun yelling.” Football wasn’t the only non-traditional diversion students sought, however. After the game, Kidd went for a drive with friends. “Margaret,” he noted, “is a crazy driver.” (Diary, November 27, 1930, Student Correspondence and Writings Collection (AC334), Box 5) Leonard Bleecker ’19 dispensed with football and New York altogether in 1916, and went to an arcade in Trenton, where he wrote that he had “a good time.” (Diary, December 8, 1916, Student Correspondence and Writings Collection (AC334), Box 1)
Clothing Store ad pasted in the scrapbook of Charles Howard McIlwain (Class of 1894), 1890, Scrapbook Collection (AC026) Box 172.
That is not to say that students never went the traditional route, nor that Princetonians were universally in favor of the typical revelry of a Princeton Thanksgiving. In 1930, the Daily Princetonian editorialized, “economic misery and the likelihood of a hard winter for the victims of the depression and the possible necessity of a bread line to stave off starvation” should give students pause. Instead of the usual frolicking in the city, the Prince suggested finding other ways to spend the holiday on campus. Some also chose to spend time with family. Christopher Donner ’35 went to his aunt’s farm in nearby Skippack, Pennsylvania, “where we had a pleasant day with everything good to eat,” but still, he missed Princeton—as “It is quite a long time since I last used an outhouse—especially with a northwest wind blowing.” (Diary, November 30, 1933, Student Correspondence and Writings Collection (AC334), Box 4)
Motivations for choosing to spend Thanksgiving weekend near Princeton varied, but a major factor was the length of the break. In 1943 and 1944, there was no break at all; for most other years, only Thursday was granted. Students were also penalized for skipping classes, and missing a class just before or just after Thanksgiving was counted against them as “double,” or as if they’d missed two rather than one. Travel costs and penalties for missing class were Bleecker’s reasons for the Thanksgiving arcade visit mentioned above. The breaks were occasionally lengthened to accommodate the Princeton-Yale football game if it fell on a day other than Thanksgiving itself, but the standard break remained only one day—and students were expected to attend classes on both the Friday and Saturday following Thanksgiving. In 1939, they may not have wanted to plan an out-of-town trip for other reasons. Not knowing whether Princeton’s observation of Thanksgiving would fall on the same day as the one at home complicated matters. After President Franklin Roosevelt asked governors across the United States to move Thanksgiving to the fourth Thursday in November, non-compliant New Englanders kept their celebration on November 30, rather than November 23, as it was in New Jersey and elsewhere in the country.
After World War II, widespread absences made Princeton a much quieter campus on Thanksgiving and the following weekend. In 1957, the faculty decided to extend the break from Wednesday afternoon until Monday morning, noting that most students were leaving campus anyway. Yet those who find themselves on the largely-deserted campus this Thursday may find comfort in the idea that being here for Thanksgiving has been, by choice or necessity, something thousands of other Princetonians have experienced, too.
Athletic Programs Collection (AC042)
The Daily Princetonian
Princeton Artwork Collection (AC376)
The Princeton Tiger
Scrapbook Collection (AC026)
Student Correspondence and Writings Collection (AC334)
For more on the history of Princeton football, see our previous blog post.