Thursday, November 23, 2017

Take a Pass on the Pilgrims—Thanksgiving is About Gratitude and Family

Thanksgiving is just the American iteration of nearly universal harvest festivals.

Note:  A re-run, but I’m on a crusade.
For some, the annual angst over Thanksgiving is upon us.  For years Native American protests that the Holiday represents European colonialism, American racism, cultural erasure, and actual genocide have begun to register with many of the rest of the current inhabitants of this country.  It is hard to deny that our First Nations, as the Canadians call their aboriginal peoples, have an excellent point.  The people we call Pilgrims represented one of the tips of the spears of a virtual invasion.  Despite their reliance on the wisdom and assistance of the natives to survive their first brutal year at Plymouth and the shared harvest feast they reportedly had, in less than a generation the settlers were engaged in brutal warfare to annihilate or displace their former neighbors

Within the first generation the Pilgrims and their neighbors the Puritans were engaged in genocidal war against their Native neighbors in the bloody Pequot War.  It was just a preview of comming attractions.
Growing numbers are now joining in a boycott of the holiday and are even joining Native American protests from Plymouth itself to Seattle.  Others, bowing to family pressure show up to dinner armed with arguments that the whole affair is a racist travesty.  Next to those who try and inflict their own brand of religion on a typically diverse American family or bring their political chips-on-the-shoulders to the table these folks are the cause of an epidemic of eye-rolling, groans, and occasional full blown family drama.
As if that weren’t enough, there seem to be no end of other reasons to hate on Thanksgiving—the ecological damage of factory farming, the ethical and health horrors of carnivorism, gluttony in the face of a starving world, wanton consumerism in the launch of the Holiday shopping season, and the brutal enjoyment of men hurtling themselves at each other in a modern re-creation of the Roman Gladiator spectacles.  Whew! And if all that wasn’t enough, we should not gloat in the embrace of our families and friends because too many are alone.
Now there is more than a kernel of truth to all of these criticisms.  And there is nothing wrong with taking time at the holiday to consider them—and to consider how we can all do and be better.

On the other hand, there is much to admire in Thanksgiving.  First, it is, after all at its heart, a harvest festival.  Virtually every culture that has been dependent on agriculture marked the critical completion of the harvest, which staves off starvation for another year, with some sort of festival.  Just because we are Americans, doesn’t mean that we don’t deserve a festival, too. 

Second, it is a feast day, something else common to most cultures.  Here we have no other national feast, accessible to all unless you count burgers and brats on the grill on Memorial Day.  Members of the many religious groups that populate our country may have their particular feasts—Christmas and Easter, the Passover Seder, Eid ul-Fitr, Diwali but only Thanksgiving allows us all to gather around one table.

Third, it is our national homecoming, the one day a year when families biological, adoptive, blended, or self-created come together with all of the joy—and occasional drama—that entails.  If it wasn’t for Thanksgiving, we might never see each other except at funerals.

And finally, Thanksgiving is an occasion to express simple gratitude, surely one of the most blest and basic of all spiritual practices. It does not require fealty to any God or any form of proscribed prayer.  We are free to acknowledge that our lives are blessed in a thousand ways.  We can be grateful to a Creator, the Earth, or the laboring hands of millions who together feed, clothe, and shelter us.  The recognition of our common debt to something larger than us is a very good thing.

So how can we keep the good of Thanksgiving and our consciences?  Well, we can refuse to go shopping after dinner at that Big Box Store with the huge sale, rush to the computer for on line Black Friday deals, or otherwise opt in to the orgy of consumerism.  We can prepare and serve vegetarian or vegan feast if that is our preference, or at least make sure that everyone at the table has good food that they are comfortable eating—and refrain for one day from making snide or judgmental comments on the choices of others.  We can turn off the TV if the orgy of sports offends us.  We can make sure we have made room for a homeless, forgotten, or lonely person at our tables instead of just bemoaning their plight.  They are remarkable easy to find.

But most of all, we can simply ditch the whole First Thanksgiving Myth.  Because it is just that—a myth and completely unessential to the tradition.

That meal in the fall of 1621 was not a Thanksgiving.  No one thought it was.  It was meant to consume the last of the harvest that could not be safely stored for the starvation time of winter ahead and meat from the fall hunt that had not been dried and smoked.  The natives probably invited themselves to the despair of every goodwife counting the meager larder.  At least they did bring some venison.  

Plymoth Governor William Bradford's one paragraph account of harvest feast shared with the natives written twenty years after the event and not rediscovered until 1854 is the slender thread from which a First Thankgiving myth was created as part of a campaign to establish a national holiday.  No one previously associated the traditional New England feasts with the Pilgrims.
It was not called a Thanksgiving, a religious term usually reserved for a day of fasting and prayerNor did it begin any tradition.  Indeed the whole episode was virtually forgotten within the life time of the participants.  Aside from a brief mention of the event in an official report to English investors in the colony, which was quickly forgotten on this side of the Atlantic, there was no known account of the event until Governor William Bradford’s history of the colony written twenty years later and presumed to be lost was re-discovered in 1854.  He had a one paragraph account of the two day feast.

We do owe New Englanders traditions of Thanksgivings and annual post-harvest homecoming, but they were two separate and distinct things not coming together until late 18th Century.

Their first declared Thanksgiving Day did not occur until June of 1676 when the governing council of Charlestown, Massachusetts declared a day of Thanksgiving in gratitude for being delivered from the threat of the Native American rebellion known as King Phillip’s War.  It was not a feast day, but a day of fasting and all-day prayer.  Thereafter it became more and more common for New England towns to declare Thanksgiving days at various times of the year to mark auspicious occasions.

It became customary to proclaim Thanksgivings at the end of successful harvest years.  The dates of these autumn events varied, but tended to be late in the season after all crops were in, the long hunts for venison and fowl that happened after the first snow falls were completed, and the coastal waters became too dangerous from gales for small fishing vessels to set out.  With all of the men home and idle and the larder at its peak of the year, even the dour Puritans transitioned the observances into feasts following a good long church service.

The Puritans  forbade the celebration of Christmas, which they considered corrupted by pagan practice and associated with Papist masses, so the late season Thanksgivings became an acceptable substitute early winter festival.  As younger sons emigrated to new lands in the west of Massachusetts, the Connecticut Valley, Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, and Up-state New York they not only took the custom with them, they began to try to make pilgrimages home to be with their families.

Still, Thanksgivings—days of fasting and prayer could, and were proclaimed at any time of the year.
By the time of the American Revolution the New England custom of Thanksgivings were well established, with a fall harvest event traditional, although celebrated at various dates by local proclamation.  In October of 1777 New England delegates to the Continental Congress convinced that body to proclaim a National Day of Thanksgiving for the victory of the Continental Army over a British invasion force from Canada at the Battle of Saratoga.  The proclamation, a one-time event, was the first to extend any Thanksgiving observation over the whole infant nation.  It was also a day of prayer, rather than feasting.

In 1782 Congress under the Articles of Confederation, proclaimed another Thanksgiving for the successful conclusion of the War of Independence.  It was signed by John Hanson, as President of Congress, the man some hold up as the true first President of the United States.

Shortly after his inauguration, George Washington, the first President under the Constitution found himself under pressure from leaders of the  established churches—the Episcopalians in the South, Quakers in Pennsylvania, and especially the Standing Order of New England to affirm a religious basis for the new nation.  They were alarmed that the Constitution had omitted any reference to God.  On the other hand the growing ranks of dissenting sectsBaptists, Methodists, Anabaptists of various sorts, Quakers in states in which they were a minority, and Universalists—as well a large number of the educated elite who were steeped in Deism were bitterly opposed to any breach of what Thomas Jefferson was already calling “a wall of separation between church and state.”
George Washington's Thanksgiving Proclimation of 1789 as published in the Massechusetts Centinel.
Trying to thread the needle, Washington issued a carefully worded proclamation of National Thanksgiving for Thursday, November 26, 1789.  He made no mention of Jesus Christ and he only used the word God once.  Instead he called for a day of general piety, reflection, and prayer and invoked the broad terms of Deism—“that great and glorious Being who is the beneficent author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be,” and the “great Lord and Ruler of Nations.”  Despite his best intentions, the proclamation satisfied neither side and drew criticism from both.  Washington tried it one more time in 1795 to even louder complaints.  Later, similar proclamations by John Adams were met by literal riots in the streets.  After his ascension to the Presidency in the Revolution of 1800, Thomas Jefferson, the champion of religious liberty and separation of church and state, put an end to these exercises in public piety.

By the mid-19th Century the New England tradition of Thanksgiving was firmly established as an occation of family reunion.
So Thanksgiving remained a regional celebration, but one which was spreading rapidly.  The New England Diaspora was rapidly spreading it throughout the North and into the newly settled lands of Ohio and the Old Northwest Territories.  The introduction of canals, turnpikes, and railroads which made transportation easier, cheaper, quicker, and safer increased the homecomings associated with the holiday.

The South was absolutely immune to the charms of the Yankee observation and staunchly resisted all efforts to introduce it in their region.  Christmas was their holiday of choice and rising sectional tensions over tariffs, western expansion, and especially slavery made the Southern aristocracy loathe to adopt any whiff of expanding Yankee influence.

Sarah Josepha Hale was famous for two things--writing Mary Had a Little Lamb and her relentless 40 year long campaign to establish Thanksgiving as a national, not a regional celebration.  She single handedly created the First Thanksgiving myth from Bradford's single paragraph.

Enter Sarah Josepha Hale, the editor of the Boston Ladies Magazine, and later Gode’s Lady’s Book, two of the leading women’s publications in the country, thought that whatever the protests of the South might be, the creation of regular national Day of Thanksgiving would help heal the nation and prevent conflict.  She inaugurated a relentless 40 year campaign of editorials and letters to governors, Congressmen, and Presidents promoting a national celebration.  When Governor Bradford’s book was re-discovered and published it was Hale who created the First Thanksgiving myth from that one scant paragraph and tied it to the noble Pilgrims, as the Plymouth settlers were now called, and their friendly Indian guests.  It was a flawless marketing campaign and branding that in short order convinced the public that there was an unbroken tradition stretching back to a Pilgrim First Thanksgiving.  Although the campaign won wider and wider support and helped codify traditions around the observance, no official action was taken until 1862.

In the midst of the Civil War another President with unorthodox religious beliefs, felt the need to unite what was left of the shattered union.  It was a bleak time.  Military disaster seemed to be the rule on every front.  Agitation for peace on terms of Southern separation was on the increase.

Abraham Lincoln may not have been much—if any kind—of a traditional Christian.  But he believed in the hand of Providence and more than once contemplated on whether the trials of the nation were not the just punishments of that hand.  Moreover he needed, now more than ever, the support of the powerful Protestant clergy, who had never ceased to agitate for the return of periodic Thanksgiving proclamations.  So it was natural that he turned to such a proclamation in the dark hour of 1862.  It was that act that would nationalize the holiday permanently and why the celebration today is more Lincoln’s than the Pilgrims’.

Inspired by Washington’s Proclamation, Lincoln set the last Thursday of November as the date.  He issued fresh proclamations each year of his presidency and all future Chief Executives followed suit.  So did most state governors, timing their proclamations to the Federal observance.  Eventually, if reluctantly, even Southern States fell into line.  By the early 20th Century the emerging Fundamentalists of the Bible Belt would become among the most ardent supporters of the Holiday but insisting that it be imbued with specifically Christian trappings.

Still, for all of its wide-spread observation, Thanksgiving was not yet an annual, repeating national holiday.  It remained dependent on new yearly Presidential proclamations.  After his election, Franklin D. Roosevelt proposed the establishment of a Federal Holiday.  Congress, worried about the expense of paying Federal employees for a day off of work, ignored his plea.  So Roosevelt continued to follow precedent.  But in 1939 with the nation struggling to get out of the second dip of the Great Depression, Roosevelt took advantage of the five Thursdays in November that year and Proclaimed Thanksgiving for the Fourth Thursday instead of the last to extend the shopping season and boost lagging sales.  He made it clear that he intended to keep his proclamations at the second to last Thursday through his presidency.  

The change immediately became a political hot potato.  Republicans charged that FDR was desecrating the memory of Lincoln.  Preachers decried the secularizations of our ancient sacred holiday.  Twenty-two states followed the President’s lead.  Most of the rest issued their proclamations for the last Thursday.  Texas, unable to decide kept both days.  The later celebration was referred to as Republican Thanksgiving while the earlier one was derided as Franksgiving.  In 1940 and ’41 FDR stayed true to his promise and issued proclamations for the next to last Thursday, continuing the confusion and controversy.

In 1941 both Houses of Congress voted to create an annual Federal Holliday on the last Thursday in November beginning in 1942 but in December the Senate changed that to the fourth Thursday, which is usually, but not always, the last one of the month.

By the 1950's the elements of modern Thanksgiving including the Macy's Parade and football on the livingroom TV set  were all in place and already felt steeped in tradition. 

By the 1950’s many employers and school districts were also giving the Friday after Thanksgiving off with pay.  The creation of a wide-spread four day weekend led to even more long distance travel for family reunions.  And soon Friday was the busiest shopping day of the year, eventually dubbed Black Friday because it was supposedly the first day of the calendar year when most retailers finally entered black ink.

So there you have it.  Despite the ubiquitous presence of Pilgrims and smiling Indians in school pageants and commercials, they really don’t have much to do with the actual tradition of Thanksgiving.  Then why not, at long last dispose of them.  Disassociate them from Thanksgiving.  Suddenly our traditional harvest, homecoming, and gratitude feast has nothing to do with colonialism and genocide.  Maybe we can all sit down together in peace—at least until drunk uncle Morrie starts up about Donald Trump.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Just When You Need Them Most—Murfin’s Thanksgiving Rules


It turns out that this illustration, swiped from a children's book, was actually created by Theresa Murfin! Gotta be some kind of relative!.  Hello, cousin and feel free to stop by for the feast.  We'll make room.

Note:  Miss me?  I have spent the last two days toiling over a new post I think you will find of interest.  And I’m not quite finished.  Tune into this channel on Friday for the results.  In the meantime we have a holiday here in the Land of the Semi-free and Home of the Fearful…

I have posted my Murfin’s Thanksgiving Rules before, but on Thanksgiving itself when everyone is too busy with preparations, entertaining, dinner, and cleaning up to read them.  I have been scolded for this.  “Damn it, Murfin!  Why didn’t you post this when it would have been of use!  I didn’t read it until 10 pm after the last guest was gone, last dishes washed, and the gravy stain scrubbed from the carpet.”

Good point.  So here it is today, in plenty of time to share with your guests—or your hosts.  This list of rules is particularly apt for those of us who do not live in House Beautiful, Pinterest posts, or Martha Stewart fantasies.  It’s for those of us with cramped space, short time, and real families of blood or choice that don’t resemble that Norman Rockwell cover or behave at all times with perfect reverent decorum.  In other words, most of the folks I know.

If you spend your Thanksgiving like this, you are excused.  And blessings on your head.

1. If you spend the day in a homeless shelter, soup kitchen, jail, hospital, nursing home, or even on the street blatantly and illegally feeding the hungry, read no more.  Your sins have been erased and forgotten and you win a gold star in the middle of your forehead.

2. Sleep in a little.  No matter how much there is to do, you will need your rest.  Strong coffee with at least the pre-show for the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade is OK.


4.  If you are coming, bring something, anything to add to the feast and festivities unless you are explicitly warned against if by the occasional fussy perfect Hosts and Hostesses.  It does not have to be homemade, expensive, or complicated.  Just not poisonous

5.  If you are not cooking, help with the set up.  Not every home has a state dining room, plenty of matching chairs, and infinite table leaves.  Be prepared to move furniture aside, scour the house for any chair that will not collapse, including the folding chairs rusting in the garage.  Try to make sure there are plates, bowls, glasses, and flatware at every seat.  They do not have to match.  In a pinch Ronald McDonald plates will suffice.  Be prepared to ferry food from the kitchen as directed.

As long as everyone gets to eat, it doesn't mater if your plates, flatwear, or chairs match or that you hauled the folding tables up from the basement.  Guests can help assemble a makeshift dining room.
6.  Try to seat the children at the table.  If this is not possible, do not ask teenagers to sit at the kids’ table.  They will know you just want them to baby sit and hate you so much that you may later not want to be alone with them near the plug in your nursing home.

7.  Speaking of children, if any are present at least one will smash an heirloom platter, spill a two litter of Coke on the kitchen floor and everyone’s feet will be sticky the rest of the day, or pour gravy on the cat.  Smile sweetly.  This will become a beloved family story, and will embarrass the miscreant for decades to come

Many of us gather with families of choice, not of blood like these urban hipsters and their friends.  The same rules apply.

8.  It is alright for some folks to watch some football when dinner is not on the table or family social time is not in force as long as men don’t hog the couches and beer and women are not made galley slaves and serving wenches.
9.  When dinner is finally ready, firmly demand that all electronics be put away.  This will cause shrieks and wails of protest, some of it from actual teenagers, the rest from relatives who realize you do not want them posting the meal live on Twitter.  There will be sulking.  Almost everyone will get over it.  Then tell some of the men that means turning of the football game as well.

10.  Saying grace is fine.  If you are a host, take a look around your table and if you are not completely sure that everyone there shares your exact and passionate religious convictions, try to make the prayer as inclusive as possible.  Don’t ask for salvation of lost souls.  No adding political diatribes in the guise of prayerright or left.  If you are a guest and hear a prayer that does not conform to your preferences unless a thumb has been stuck directly in your eye, smile and ignore it.  Chances are that no matter how doltish the person praying meant well.

11. This is not the occasion to go to war over food choices.  Let what you won’t/can’t eat pass by.  Carnivores do not ridicule the vegetarians—and hosts make sure they have something to eat.  Vegetarians, vegans, and Ethical eaters spare everyone your diatribes.  You knew what you were in for when you agreed to come.

12.  There almost surely will be at least one dramatic, cathartic moment at the table when old resentments are laid bare and skeletons come tumbling out of the closet.  A few tears, even a little screaming and a dramatic stomping away from the table clear the air like a thunderstorm on the prairie.  Afterwards if there is love and a dollop of understanding, the expectant tension broken, things feel better.  Pass the pies.

Post-Thanksgiving dish stacking at the Murfin mansion--third load
13. After dinner the COOKS ARE EXEMPT FROM CLEAN-UP AND DISH WASHING!!!!  There are no guests at Thanksgiving.  Everyone is literal, figurative, or honorary family.  Roll up your sleeves and pitch in.  With a group effort, and plenty of take home containers for leftovers, it doesn’t take long.
14.  Don’t everybody scatter the second the pie is put away.  Deal the cards on the cleared table, play charades or parlor games.  If there is a piano or guitar, start the singing.  Share scrapbooks.  Break out your best lies.
15.  After a while it is alright to surrender to lethargy, sprawl listlessly on sofas and easy chairs, go gape mouthed and stupid.  Even snore a little.  There must be some sappy old movie on to pretend to watch.
16. And the most important rule of allDON’T EVEN THINK ABOUT GOING SHOPPING!  If you do, I will hunt you down and hurt you.
A few years ago I found myself asked to say grace at a typical extended family Thanksgiving.  Around the table were Catholics ardent and lapsed, liberal Protestants, Jews (mostly secular), a practicing Buddhist, and unchurched secularists.  And I, of course, was a Unitarian Universalist with Humanist leanings.  To be inclusive, to whom should I address a prayer?  What deity, if any, should I invoke?  Should I lead with a Chinese menu of optionspick a god from column A and a spirit from column B? 

This is what I came up with.  You may find it useful—or not.  Feel free to use it if it fits.  Or adapt it to your needs and circumstances.  No pressure.
Thanksgiving Prayers should be about gratitude and love, not preaching, proselytizing, politics, or finger pointing. Swallow hard.  You can manage it....

A Thanksgiving Prayer for Those Who Don’t Pray

Thanks for the hands.
All of them.
            That dug and scratched,
            reaped and loaded,
            milled and butchered,
            baked and cooked,
            served and scrubbed.

The cracked,
            the bleeding,
                        the blistered hands.

The hands that
hewed and smelted,   
            sawed and hammered,
            wove and sewed,
            put together and took apart.

The calloused,
            the greasy,
                        the grimy hands.

The hands that
            wrote and painted,
            plucked and keyed
            carved and created.

The graceful,
            the supple,
                        the nimble hands.

The hands that
            caressed and fondled,
            stroked and petted,
            held and are held,
            grasped and gave,
            played and prayed.

The warm,
            the soft,
                        the forgiving hands.

And today bless even the hands that
            shoved and scourged,
            slapped and smote,
            bound and chained us.

The harsh,
            the hateful,
                        the heavy hands.

Today they cannot still our hands
            from their pleasure and their duty.

The void of anger they create,
            our hands fill with love.

The gentle,
            the clasping,
                        the reaching hands.

Patrick Murfin