Wednesday, November 23, 2011

What You Thought You Knew About Thanksgiving is Probably Wrong

The meal shared by Pilgrims and the locals in 1621  not only probably looked nothing like this, it was not a Thanksgiving and began no tradition.

Note:  Adapted from a post on November 25, 2010.

We recall all those pictures of apple cheeked Pilgrims in neat suites with shiny buckles on their shoes and hats, the prim women in white bonnets and aprons, the smiling Indians arriving with deer and other game to add to the groaning plank and trestle tables set up under a glory of New England foliage that adorned our school walls.

The reality of the gathering in the fall of 1621 in Plymouth was far different.  The passengers of the Mayflower, a band of religious dissenters and their hired help, had meant to land in balmy Virginia.  Instead they were thrown up on the very inhospitable shores of what is now New England on the edge of a brutal winter.  By the following March more than half of them were dead from starvation, exposure, and diseases ranging from scurvy to dysentery.  They were cut off from relief from their friends and relatives in England and in Leyden, Holland.

Over the next summer, with some famous horticultural advice from the local natives, the colonists were able to plant a crop of New World corn and squash and Old World root vegetables.  Attempts to grow wheat and barley largely failed.  But by mingling with the natives, each community was exposed to alien germs.  More died in both camps.
When the survivors, by now a ragged and pathetic remnant, decided to hold a harvest festival, it was largely to consume those food items that could not be safely stored for the coming winter—a winter many thought that they would never survive.  The natives probably invited themselves to the despair of every goodwife counting the meager larder.  At least they did bring some venison.

That dinner was not called a Thanksgiving, a religious term usually reserved for a day of fasting and prayer.  Nor 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, 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.  The publication of Bradford’s book re-kindled interest in the Pilgrims and was latched onto by promoters of a Thanksgiving holiday as proof of its historic roots.

The Pilgrim’s religious cousins in New England, the Puritans, did provide a true historic basis for the current celebration.  But 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.  There after it became more and more common for New England towns to declare Thanksgiving days at various times of the years to mark auspicious occasions.  

Soon it became customary to proclaim Thankgivings 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 storms 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 soon 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, Vermont, and the Hampshire Grants they not only took the custom with them, they began to try to make pilgrimages home to be with their families. 

Still, Thanksgiving 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 become 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 Candida 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 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 sects—Baptists, 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.”

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.

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, railroads, and turnpikes which made transportation easier, cheaper, quicker and safer increased the homecomings associations 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 everything from tariffs, western expansion, to slavery made the Southern aristocracy loathe to adopt any whiff of expanding Yankee influence.

Sarah Josepha Hale, the editor of the Boston Ladies' Magazine, and later Godey'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 discovered it was Hale who created the First Thanksgiving myth and tied it to the noble Pilgrims, as the Plymouth settlers were now called, and their friendly Indian guests.  Although the campaign won wider and wider support and helped codify traditions around the observance, no 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 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 as more Lincoln’s than the Pilgrims’. 

Probably 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 had fallen 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 insisted that it be imbued with specifically Christian trappings. 

One by one traditions fell into line.  The spread of the domesticated turkey and its tenuous association with the Pilgrims made it the center piece of the feast in most places by 1900.  The Detroit Lions of the infant National Football League began playing games on Thanksgiving to take advantage of the day off given to most workers, including those in the auto industry.  Their most frequent opponents were the Chicago Bears.  This began the tradition of football on the holiday, which soon spread to inter-collegiate play as well.  Philadelphia started an annual Thanksgiving Parade in 1920, but when Macy’s Department Store in New York City began its parade in 1924 it set off a tradition that soon spread to other big cities.  By ending the parade with the arrival of Santa Claus, it also marked Thanksgiving as the official beginning of the Christmas shopping season.

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 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 Friday, which is usually, but not always, the last of the month.

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.

One final addition to Thanksgiving tradition is the recent emergence of a genre of movies and television shows that feature dysfunctional families or groups of friends at Thanksgiving, perhaps an expression of national angst over what it really means to come home.

Whatever your feelings about the holiday, I hope you spend it with loved ones and with grace in your heart.

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