Thanksgiving means different things to different people. The ultimate source for learning and teaching about Thanksgiving is teachinghistory.org’s Thanksgiving Web site . Now that Thanksgiving 2011 is a memory, the leftovers have probably been consumed (or certainly frozen), and most food poisoning victims have fully recovered (food safety is very important), there’s some time for reflection.
Since 1970 Native Americans have mourned the day as a National Day of Mourning and November is Native American Heritage Month . Considering the travail of native peoples, this can be an inspiring but invariably depressing story. Learn how sadly the New England Indians miscalculated in their help, kindness and diplomacy with the Pilgrim settlers by watching We Shall Remain: After the Mayflower . The People of the First Light, the Wampanoag, were rewarded with darkness! For the Wampanoag, it really did turn out to be about who gets the stuffing (aka stuff)! To the Pilgrims, it was a harvest festival to thank God for a bountiful harvest and a survival which seemed providential and miraculous (of course, harvest celebrations were familiar to Native Americans. too). To 19th century Americans it was an affirmation of their nation’s special place in God’s eyes; to later immigrants, who were not Protestant, it became a customization and acceptance of a new nationality; and, to nearly all of us today, Thanksgiving is a family holiday – with a predictable menu and sequence of activities – that unite us as a common people. While some holidays, as we’ve become and continue to become multicultural, can actually divide us or at least make some folks less than comfortable – Christmas, for example – Thanksgiving can be celebrated by everybody. But things are never so simple; because at the turn of the century Catholics and Jews actually needed assurance from their religious leaders that they could join in what was initially viewed as a Protestant holiday.
In 1622, Edward Winslow (1595-1655) wrote a letter which describes the event and it was printed in a pamphlet that historians commonly call Mourt’s Relation . But the description was soon lost, then rediscovered in the 1820s and reprinted in Chronicles of the Pilgrim Fathers (1841). The event also became known by an account written by Governor William Bradford (1590-1657) — for biography see the American National Biography and the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography — titled Of Plimoth Plantation . It was reprinted in 1855. Thanksgiving wasn’t made a fixed and recurrent national holiday until 1941 by the hand of FDR. Here’s the text of FDR’s 1939 proclamation , not a very good year, to be sure. It was made a national holiday by proclamation by Abraham Lincoln (and annually by subsequent presidents until FDR). Even in the midst of unparalleled bloodshed (the Civil War killed and wounded nearly 650,000 Americans, North and South), Lincoln reminded Americans of how blessed their country was and looked to a happy, prosperous, and certain future (even when others might have dwelled on uncertainty). The 1863 proclamation (there were actually two, the first after the Union victory at Gettysburg) said the nation was being punished for its great sin – slavery. Lincoln’s proclamations was the result of a long Thanksgiving observance campaign carried on in one of America’s most influential “domestic” magazines of the period, Godey’s Lady’s Book . Godey’s may be read in the American Periodical Series , and the Libraries also hold some original copies – some hand-colored. Lincoln’s October 1863 proclamation, which was almost certainly not written by him, but by Secretary of State William H. Seward, is beautiful and poignant. People, including government officials, could really write back then.
The year that is drawing towards its close, has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added, which are of so extraordinary a nature that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever watchful providence of Almighty God. In the midst of a civil war of unequaled magnitude and severity, which has sometimes seemed to foreign States to invite and to provoke their aggression, peace has been preserved with all nations, order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere except in the theatre of military conflict; while that theatre has been greatly contracted by the advancing armies and navies of the Union. Needful diversions of wealth and of strength from the fields of peaceful industry to the national defense, have not arrested the plough, the shuttle or the ship; the axe has enlarged the borders of our settlements, and the mines, as well of iron and coal as of the precious metals, have yielded even more abundantly than heretofore. Population has steadily increased, notwithstanding the waste that has been made in the camp, the siege and the battle-field; and the country, rejoicing in the consciousness of augmented strength and vigor, is permitted to expect continuance of years with large increase of freedom. No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy. It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole American People. I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens. And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility and Union.
So the Thanksgiving we celebrate today had its genesis in ancient harvest festivals and in what ultimately became an exercise in civil religion, that is an ostensibly religious celebration divorced from a single faith. For a quick Thanksgiving history, minus the dark ironies, virtually visit where it all began, Plimouth and read the History of Thanksgiving .
Today’s Thanksgiving has some salient characteristics. For instance, when it comes to food, abundance is more important than delicateness and a turkey is more or less mandatory (for some who can’t afford one “a turkey will be provided” is actually part of Thanksgiving history) – unless of course celebrants are vegans or vegetarians – in which case a tofu turkey is generally substituted. This doesn’t look like a turkey; it’s generally a voluptuous roundish mass, sort of like a turkey breast. Another irony: Even if no turkeys loss their lives in the preparation of this meal – they are eaten as symbols or unmistakable turkey substitutes. You’d think vegetarians and vegans would want to forget the whole sad custom (at least from the turkey’s perspective); maybe the practice is just to allay the guilt of other diners and make everyone comfortable. Incidentally, turkeys once held an honored placed in America’s bird pantheon. Ben Franklin actually wanted to make the turkey the national bird . And he had good reasons but mostly he disapproved of the bald eagle because he thought it had bad moral character and was a traditional imperial symbol, not at all appropriate for the young republic – he wasn’t trying to be funny. Well, not totally. We’ve so changed the nature of the domestic turkey (the turkey mom on the right is wild) that it doesn’t make sense at all anymore. And being called a “turkey” is guananteed to hurt your feelings and is obviosuly indicative of the low esteem in which some hold the bird. We’ve opted for and stuck with the bald eagle — even if we almost managed to kill the national bird off with lead shot in carrion and pesticides and rodent poisons. The turkey though is the undisputed symbol of Thanksgiving – even used by Google during the holiday above its query box. This year you could change feather colors. But I digress, a lot: the preparation of the turkey has always received a lot of attention in cook books and on television, how about this 1956 television American Dairy Association tutorial/advertisement. By the way, the word is butter! Now this is a perfect blend of advertising and instruction. Butterball is to turkey what Google is to searching the Web. And, of course, there’s the turkey hot line – so that turkey cookers don’t give their families food poisoning by under cooking. Pumpkin pie is another certain offering, along with potatoes and a dish reflecting the ethnic cuisine of dinners as complements to traditional fare. An Italian American family might add a pasta dish and stuffed artichokes to its Thanksgiving table.
The ambience of Thanksgiving gets a lot of attention. What did your Thanksgiving table look like? Martha Stewart, America’s domesticity maven, suggests how it might look. And Yankee candle (there’s a scent called Be Thankful!) and other companies are more than willing to help you make it smell just right, too. And, for many, Thanksgiving ambience includes the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and a cavalcade of football games. You can watch clips on Google Video and get background in the Wikipedia. Neither was a part of my Thanksgiving, which focused on catching up with family and playing with a four-year-old pretty much non-stop.
Time for popular culture, whether you approve or not, it’s part of our culture. Of late there have been many satirical accounts of the Thanksgiving story; one favorite of mine is the South Park History of Thanksgiving . By the time you read this, you should be able to view the episode in its entirety online, but while once this was possible on the Web, as of this writing it is no longer. This kind of knowledge simply can’t be given away for nothing! I bet there’s a little more than irony is this observation! Get over the nuttiness and crudity and the satire is, to my mind anyway, right on. Fun is poked at the History Channel, expertise (and especially how the History Channel uses it), the imposition of theories on evidence, and the very meaning of critical thinking, as well as the ironies of Native American history. But were the Pilgrims and Indians really aliens from outer space? If South Park has only whetted your appetite, try Family Guy . The focus is different and not historical, see what you think. Ready for something simpler? Real hardcore traditional history? The Charlie Brown Origins of Thanksgiving (click here for part two) is great as far as it goes; but doesn’t touch the irony of the historical event for Indians. It was all sweetness and light, as they say — and they all lived happily ever after. Unfortuntely, we know that’s not true. In fairness to the event, the Wampanoag thought they had a good thing going at the time — it just didn’t last very long.
Who were the Pilgrims anyway (the Puritans, in a sense, hijacked Thanksgiving)? You can read some very good encyclopedia articles (and this piece from a project at the Univesity of Virginia is helpful). For most of us , the period will come more to life by reading the recently published historical novel The Pilgrim , but remember, it’s historical fiction. It was featured on National Public Radio.
So, as always, I ask: What’s the point of all this? Let your mind wander on the Web and in the library, who knows what you’ll find out and what connections you may make? Wander and wonder . . . what’s the connection?
Olly Benson, “Mayflower II” October 13, 2005 via Flickr, Creative Commons Attribution.
Computejoe, “Wampanoag” June 27, 2005 via Flickr, Creative Commons Attribution.
Onlinewoman, “Abraham Lincoln” August 30, 2007 via Flickr, Creative Commons Attribution.
Allan Gatham, “William H. Seward” September 11, 2010 via Flickr, Creative Commons Attribution.
Wade Franklin, “Turkey Family” June 2, 2005 via Flickr, Creative Commons Attribution.
Master Philip, “Thanksgiving Turkey” November 23, 2006 via Flickr, Creative Commons Attribution.
Benjamin Chun, “The Table” November 22, 2007 via Flickr, Creative Commons Attribution.