Tuesday, November 30, 2021

Hanerot Halalu—The Murfin Winter Holidays Music Festival

                                                        Hanerot Halalu sung by the Maccabeats.

For the Third Night of Hanukkah, we will feature another song/prayer sung in the evening home service.  Hanerot Halalu is recited after the lights on the Menorah are kindled. There are several different versions.  The version by the Maccabeats that we are sharing here is used by many Ashkenazi communities.

The Maccabeats were students at the Orthodox Yeshiva University in New York City.  The 14 member a cappella group was organized by Julian (Chaim) Horowitz in 2007.  By 2010 the were in the university’s graduate school when they released their first CD, Voices from the Heights which was underwritten by a grant from the school.  The album initially sold only 5,000 copies but their first Hanukkah video attracted two million hits in its first ten days.  The group was invited to sing at both the Israeli Knesset and twice at Barack Obama’s White House.

The Maccabeats meeting and singing remotely.

Now all graduated, members married, started secular careers, and moved all over the country but they continue to meet virtually weekly to rehearse and record.  A quartet of the members makes personal appearances

In 2015 they released an EP collection of their first five Hanukkah songs, A Maccabeats Hanukkah from which this version was taken. 


Monday, November 29, 2021

Consider Compassion for Campers for Giving Tuesday

I know your are probably inundated with worthy Giving Tuesday begging.  But nowhere can your donation of any size have greater immediate impact than sharing with Compassion for Campers which serves the McHenry County unhoused who will spend all or part of each month this winter camping out or living in a vehicle.  Your dollars almost immediately be used to buy the critical gear—tents, sleeping bags, pads, tarps, stoves, fuel, warm gloves, hats, and socks—as well as personal hygiene items, flashlights and batteries, and non-perishable food.  Give today and a homeless person can pick them up at Community Empower Shower events at Willow Crystal Lake the first and third Fridays of the month.  Not only that, but 100% of your donation will go directly to those in need.  Funds are deposited in a dedicated fund of the Tree of Life Unitarian Universalist Congregation in McHenry, Illinois that cannot be used for any other purpose.  In addition, the church donates all administrative expenses.  Of course, donations are tax deductible.

You can donate on the congregation’s Giving Tuesday app making sure to designate the Compassion for Campers fund in the drop down menu.  You can also simply send a check to Tree of Life, 6603 Bull Valley Road, McHenry, IL 60050.

Maoz Tzur (Rock Of Ages)—The Murfin Winter Holidays Music Festival

                                             Maoz Tzur (Rock of Ages) sung by Haddasah Berne.

Hanukkah, coming early this year in November, snuck up on me.  I blame the wall calendar next to my desk which low tech me relies on to remind me of such things.  This year’s calendar doesn’t include Jewish holy days.  I’ll have the B’nai B’rith look into it.

Hanukkah began last evening with the lighting of the first candle on the Menorah at sundown.  It is a celebration of the miracle of light that occurred when Judah Maccabee liberated the Temple in Jerusalem but only had enough purified oil to burn one night.  But the oil was enough to light the Menorah for 8 days until more could be ritually purified.  It is a joyful celebration of liberation and of enduring through dark and dangerous times.  It is primarily observed privately over eight days in Jewish homes rather than being a synagogue ritual.  It is especially treasured because it persisted through the darkest hours of the Holocaust and was even secretly kept in Nazi death camps.

We will start our Hanukkah song today with Maoz Tzur (Rock of Ages), a selection in Hebrew by Hadassah Berne.  She is a Messianic Jew which makes her controversial in Israel.  The singer/songwriter has performed and toured extensively in Israel, the United States, Canada, Central America, and the Caribbean and has often performed for Holocaust survivors.  In Israel she has often performed at coffee house outreach centers with Chosen People Ministries.  In the U.S. she has ministered in conferences such as the Messianic Jewish Alliance of America (MJAA).   

Hassadah Berne.

Maoz Tzur (Hebrew: מָעוֹז צוּר) is a Jewish liturgical poem or piyyut. It is sung during Hanukkah, after lighting the festival lights. The Hebrew song is thought to have been written sometime in the 13th Century. It was originally sung only in the home but has been used in the synagogue since the 19th Century or earlier.

The first verse translates to English as:

My Refuge, my Rock of Salvation! ‘Tis pleasant to sing Your praises.

Let our house of prayer be restored. And there we will offer You our thanks.

When You will have slaughtered the barking foe.

Then we will celebrate with song and psalm the altar’s dedication.


Sunday, November 28, 2021

We Gather Together—The Murfin Winter Holidays Music Festival

                                            We Gather Together sung by the Hymn Ensemble.

This Sunday we share a simple, lyrical hymn beloved of American Protestants and most often used in Thanksgiving services.  It seems to invoke a colonial or early republican times.  But the song is not American, older than that, and not meant to be associated with the American harvest feast.  Instead, We Gather Together is 200 years older, of Dutch origin with a bloody inspiration. 

Originally written in 1597 by Adrianus Valerius as Wilt heden nu treden to celebrate the Dutch victory over Spanish forces in the Battle of Turnhout. It was thus a patriotic song rather than a religious one.  But of course, it had religious overtones in that it celebrated the defeat of Catholic Spain by the mostly Reform Dutch patriots whose congregations could finally worship safely free from fear of the Inquisition.  Which is why you will rarely hear it sung at a Mass.

It was originally set to a Dutch folk tune and was first introduced in an American hymnal in 1903.  When the Dutch Reformed Church in North America decided in 1937 to abandon the tradition of singing only Psalms and add hymns in their church services, We Gather Together was chosen as the first hymn in their first hymnal.  It soon spread to other denominations, notably in the influential Methodist hymnal.  Church music historian Michael Hawn explained the song’s new popularity, “by World War I, we started to see ourselves in this hymn,” and the popularity increased during World War II, when ‘the wicked oppressing” were understood to include Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan.  During the cold war many saw the communists as the oppressors, while progressives saw an enemy closer to home—the McCarthy Era Red hunters.  More recently they have been identified with the Ku Klux Klan during the Civil Right Era and contemporary White Nationalists and Trumpist insurrectionists. 

There are several different translations from the Dutch in use and other adaptations published.  When my Unitarian Universalists added it to their hymnals they typically toyed with the lyrics. Significantly, they changed the first line “We gather together to ask the Lord’s blessing” to a more Humanist friendly “We gather together in simple Thanksgiving” even more closely associating it with the fall holiday.

The Hymns Ensemble.

Today we are sharing a lovely version by the Hymns Ensemble from their Lockdown Session made by Zoom during the Coronavirus pandemic.  They describe themselves as “A classical Gospel vocal venture of the finest voices.... Singing hymns with a classical touch.”

Saturday, November 27, 2021

Thanksgiving Song by Mary Chapin Carpenter—The Murfin Winter Holidays Music Festival

                                                        Thanksgiving Song by Mary Chapin Carpenter.

Let’s linger over Thanksgiving music through this four day weekend and before we plunge headfirst into Christmas fare.  No reason or need to rush the jingle bells and tinsel.  We’ll start with a piece by Mary Chapin Carpenter off her 2008 album Come Darkness, Come Light: Twelve Songs of Christmas.  Chances are unless you are a hardcore fan you have not heard Thanksgiving Song which generated almost no airplay when it came out or since.

Carpenter is an original and some say quirky country music/Americana singer songwriter who is much beloved by other artists across many genres and scored against-the-odds country hits.   In the 1990s she earned five Grammy Awards, two Academy of Country Music Awards (Top New Female Vocalist in 1990 and Top Female Vocalist in 1992), and Country Music Association Female Vocalist of the Year in 1992 and’93.  Despite these accolades and a series of well-reviewed albums since then, she found herself increasing locked out of country radio because her powerful, personal lyrics no longer fit with narrow expectations.

Carpenter was born on February 21, 1958 in Princeton, New Jersey, to Chapin Carpenter Jr., a Life Magazine executive, and Mary Bowie Robertson.  She led a privileged life living abroad with her parents in Japan from 1969 to 1971 before they moved to Washington, D.C.  She was educated in prestigious private schools.  Her parents divorced when she was 16, a traumatic event that affected her deeply.  She turned to her guitar for solace and sang folk music by Peter, Paul & Mary, Judy Collins, and The Mamas & The Pappas.

Shortly after she graduated from The Taft School her father encouraged her to sing at a bar open mic, an experience that was so stressful for the intensely shy girl that she became physically ill.  Yet she continued to perform at local open mics and even hosted one for a while.

She attended Brown University and graduated in 1981 with a degree in American Civilization.  Over summer breaks she would sing at Washington clubs but had no intention to make a career in music.  When she found no interesting work in which to use her degree, she finally decided to give music a go.  A regular on the Washington folk scene she met and connected with guitarist John Jennings, who would become her producer and long-time collaborator.   It was Jennings who suggested she work on original music instead of covers.

Mary Chapin Carpenter early in her recording career.

Carpenter’s first album, Hometown Girl was produced by John Jennings and was released in 1987.  Songs from the LP got play on public and college radio stations, but it was not until her label Columbia began promoting her as a country artist that she found a wider audience.  Carpenter was ambivalent about being pigeonholed. She preferred the term to be called a singer-songwriter or “slash rocker” as in country/folk/rock. She told Rolling Stone in 1991, “I’ve never approached music from a categorization process, so to be a casualty of it is real disconcerting to me.”

Despite the qualms the albums State of Heart, Shooting Straight in the Dark, Come On Come On, and Stones in the Road produced a slew of country and cross-over hits making her one of the top Country artists of the ‘90’s.  But her background and her music didn’t fit easily into the usual Country music scenes in Nashville, Austin, and on the West Coast.  She was never going to be invited to join The Grand Ol’ Opry.

                            Mary Chapin Carpenter on her Virginia farm.  Say, I think I have the same hat!

As Carpenter aged and became more experimental, her album and singles sales slacked off.  She left Columbia and started her own label Zoë giving her more creative latitude and control.  Her more recent albums have come to grips with recurring depression, aging, and complicated relationships.  She has also been free to experiment with different styles and unconventional instrumentation.  While her songs seldom charted very high, she kept and expanded a dedicated core following who still pack her concerts.  She also has spoken out on several issues including mental health and progressive politics.  This was rewarded in 2008 with the Americana Music Honors & Awards Spirit of Americana/Free Speech Award.  She was also inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2012.

Carpenter's rich and amazing holiday album.

It seems that most country artists release one or more Christmas album.  Most cover the same familiar mix of popular seasonal covers and traditional carols.  Often a catchy original tune is included in a bid for it to become a lucrative new seasonal standard.  Chapin’s album Come Darkness, Come Light: Twelve Songs of Christmas was nothing like that.  It had twelve holiday-themed songs, six of which were written or co-written by Carpenter. The other tracks consisted of rare traditional holiday songs. The album features collaborations with Carpenter’s with producer John Jennings and covers of songs by Robin and Linda Williams, Tommy Thompson, and composer John Rutter. The opening track Once in Royal David’s City was originally performed during the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols in Cambridge, England, which Carpenter says she listens to every Christmas.  Mark Deming of Allmusic thought that the album focused more on the “thoughtful and spiritual side of the season”, while Scott Sexton of About.com said that the album’s arrangement evoked “a calming vibe that is perfect for any holiday event.”

Her Thanksgiving Song is certainly worth a listen!


Friday, November 26, 2021

Alice’s Restaurant—The Return of the Murfin Winter Holidays Music Festival

After a tough year and a half many of us can now get out and about to hear live music, perform, or join in seasonal singing.  Those all-Christmas music radio stations are already churning out their short rotation of holiday hitsTV specials from highbrow to hip are on almost every night.  There are plenty of ways for you to get your jolly Jones for Yuletide tunes satisfied.   But if you are in the mood for a quiet moment each day with a steaming mug of coffee, cocoa, mulled something or other, or something stronger and more adult, Murfin’s Annual Winter Holidays Music Festival is for you!

    Murfin's Winter Holidays Music Festival is back!

This is how it works: Every year beginning on the day after ThanksgivingBlack Friday if you must—until the Feast of the Epiphany—the Day of the Three Kings—on January 6, I will post a seasonal song, not only sacred and secular Christmas favorites, but songs celebrating the many winter festivals observed during this time of year including Hanukkah, St. Nicholas Day, Santa Lucia, Winter Solstice, Boxing Day, and the New Year.  I try to mix up the familiar with what might not be so well known including songs from different cultures and new music.  Of course, there will be plenty of time and space for the old chestnuts.   Regular followers know that I am especially fond of the secular songs of the Golden Age of American Christmas Music which stretched roughly from the early 1930’s to the late 1970’s.

I am also eager to get suggestions and requests.  You can message me on Facebook, e-mail pmurfin@scbglobal.net , or post a comment to a blog entry.

This year let’s kick things off with a Thanksgiving song while the leftovers are still in the fridge.

As the festivities were winding down yesterday Grandson #1 Nicholas Baily sat at the table and watched his Grandma load him up with leftovers, he mentioned that he would be listening to Adam Sandler’s Thanksgiving Song on the drive back to his new place in Rockford.  Nick is about 30 years old.  I told him our Thanksgiving Song was Alice’s Restaurant, which WFMT in Chicago obligingly plays each Turkey Day.  Plenty of aging hippies cue up their venerable vinyl, find a CD, or maybe even pops an ancient cassette tape into a surviving player to hear it one more time. 

The hippy Thanksgiving feast at the Church in Stockbridge, Massachusetts as seen in Arthur Penn's 1969 film Alice's Restaurant .

Arlo, the son of the legendary Woody Guthrie and modern dancer Marjorie Mazia, was only 18 years old at Thanksgiving in 1965.  He was trying to stake out his own identity independent of the long shadow of Woody, who was already hospitalized in the last stages of his battle with Huntington’s Chorea.  Away at college in far away Montana he watched other acolytes, notably Ramblin’ Jack Elliot, and Bob Dylan sit by his dad’s bed-side and appropriate his musical mantle.  Arlo was playing and singing around school and small coffee houses but had no reputation of his own when he decided to hitch-hike back East for a possible last visit to his Old Man, and to settle into communal living in Stockbridge, Massachusetts.  He attended a joyous holiday feast in the old church building where he and many of the others crashedAlice Brock, the former librarian at a boarding school in town that Arlo had attended, and the proprietor of a new counter cultural restaurant supplied most of the food.

After the dinner Arlo and a pal loaded what he described as “half a ton of garbage” into a ramshackle truck to take it to the local dump which they found closed for the holiday.  Not knowing what to do, the pair simply dumped their load in a ravine just off the road, not uncommon then in much of rural America.  But when the local constable found a letter addressed to Arlo in the mess, he arrested him, took him to jail, and charged him with illegal dumping.  Arlo was convicted by a Justice of the Peace, fined, and ordered to clean up the mess.  All of which Arlo did with more or less good humor, amused that he had been made a convicted criminal for what he called littering.  By the end of the decade many hippies swept up in the emerging ecological movement, including Guthrie, recognized the offense as far more serious than it seemed at the time.  But that was in the future.

Having dropped out of college, Arlo was called up for induction in the Army while the Vietnam War was raging and being drafted has serious, even fatal consequences.  Arlo showed up for his induction physical with no real plan of what to do, and a cheeky, irreverent attitude.  The scrawny kid who had a good chance of inheriting his father’s fatal genetic condition somehow passed.  Then his record turned up and he was rejected as unfit for military service as a result of a criminal record consisting solely of one conviction.

All of which Arlo described in detail in a rambling 18 minute story/song,  Alice’s Restaurant Massacree he began to perform at his small gigs around the northeast.  Boston WBAI Public Radio host Bob Fass got ahold of a tape of the song from a live performance and played it repeatedly on his overnight broadcasts.  It became an instant word-of-mouth countercultural his and led Arlo to being signed to a major record label—Warner Bros. which released the song as the entire A side of Guthrie’s debut album, Alice’s Restaurant in 1967.  It became an instant classic.  Two years later in 1969 director Arthur Penn adapted the song into a movie with Arlo playing himself.

Arlo Stripped for induction in the Penn film.

Arlo quickly became a major star on the festival and concert circuit.  He performed Allice’s Restaurant at almost every performance until the end of the Vietnam War made it less relevant.  He also realized “I would never sing the song for a virgin audience again.”  He stopped performing in by the mid-70’s and resisted all pleas or demands that he do it.  Eventually, he decided that he would include it on tour for every 10th Anniversary of the song.  He did it for the 30th, 40th, and 50th tours.  His last public performance of it was at his annual Thanksgiving concert in 2019.  After the Coronavirus pandemic canceled his planned 2020 farewell tour and a series of strokes impeded his ability to walk and play guitar up to his own standards.  Arlo announced that he would no longer book any new shows.

Arlo shortly before his retirement.

Arlo’s beloved wife Jackie died on October 14, 2012, shortly after being diagnosed with liver cancer.  He began a new relationship with old friend Marti Ladd and just announced to his social media fans that he and Marti will wed.  They now live together in Micco, Florida.

Meanwhile there is an active campaign to have Arlo named to the Kennedy Center Honors.  A lot of us geezers think it would be well deserved.


Thursday, November 25, 2021

Thanksgiving is Just Fine Without the Pilgrim Myth So Why Not Dump it

Thomas Nast's 1869 Thanksgiving cartoon pictured Uncle Sam carving a turkey at a diverse post-Civil Ware table inhabited a legion of ethnic stereotypes under the watchful eyes of Presidents Lincoln, Washington, and Grant belied Nast's own strong Nativist bias.  He extoled universal suffrage for freed slaves and women, but certainly didn't mean if to include the table's Native American interloper.

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 the tip of the spear 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.

Ron Cobb's iconic 1968 cartoon from the Los Angeles Free Press perfectly illustrates the critisism of Thanksgiving as a settler/colonist travesty.

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 Thanksgivingthe 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.

The cornucopia, a horn shaped basket of ancient Greek origins that over flows with bountiful produce, is a symbol of Thanksgiving as a harvest festival.  

On the other hand, there is much to admire in Thanksgiving.  First, it is, after all in 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 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, log-on to e-commerce sites, or otherwise opt in to the orgy of seasonal 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.

The meal allegedly shared by Plimoth colonists  and local natives probably looked nothing like this and was certainly not a thanksgiving. 

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.  It 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, which was quickly forgotten on this side of the Atlantic, there was no known account of it until Governor William Bradfords 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.

An official transcript of Governor William Bradford's long lost manuscript history of Plymouth Colony published in the late 19th Century.  A brief mention of a harvest feast in the colonist's first year was the bare bones upon which the Pilgrim Thanksgiving Myth was built and propagated.

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 Phillips 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 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 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.”

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.

An illustration from 1850 celebrated Thanksgiving as homecoming and sentimental 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.

The mother of the holiday writer and editor Sarah Josepha Hale conducted a relentless and successfull 40 campaign to promote Thanksgiving as a national celebration and she created the Pilgrim Myth to do
The mother of the holiday writer and editor Sarah Josepha Hale conducted a relentless and successfull 40 campaign to promote Thanksgiving as a national celebration and she created the Pilgrim Myth to do the job.

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, who thought that whatever the qualms 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 timeMilitary disaster seemed to be the rule on every frontAgitation 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 post-rebellion 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 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. 

In hopes of stimulating business and the economy Franklyn D. Roosevelt proclaimed Thanksgiving on the second to last Thursday in November to promote retail sales.

The change immediately became a political hot potatoRepublicans 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.

Thanksgiving in the 1950's--an American family feast tradition firmly established.

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 what a great President Donald Trump was.

Wednesday, November 24, 2021

Murfin’s Thanksgiving Rules and a Handy Table Grace Back by Popular Demand


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—This has been one of my most popular, regularly requested, and widely shared of my annual holiday posts. 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, Snapchat posts, or Martha Stewart fantasies.  It’s for those of us with cramped space, short time, and real families of blood, choice, accident, or convenience that don’t resemble that famous Norman Rockwell cover or behave at all times with perfect reverent decorum.  In other words, most of the folks I know.

Mozel tov if you spend Thanksgiving like this.

1. If you spend the day in a homeless shelter, soup kitchen, jail, hospital, nursing home, or even be 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. vIf you are coming, bring something, anything to add to the feast and festivities unless you are explicitly warned against it by the occasional fussy perfect Hosts and Hostesses.  It does not have to be homemade, expensive, or complicated.  Just not poisonous.

                                     The place settings and chairs don't have to match.

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.

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 bottle 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.

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 Snapchat.  There will be sulking.  Almost everyone will get over it.  Then tell some of the men that it means turning off the football game as well.


Modern American families are apt to be multi-ethnic, multi-religions, gender identity diverse, politically polarized, diet diverse, and a life-style mishmash.  Make sure there is comfortable--and I don't mean the seating--and welcoming room for all. 

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.


Expect at least one breakout of cathartic family drama.

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.

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.

Post-Thanksgiving dish stacking at the Murfin mansion--third load.

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.


Don't let a Thanksgiving prayer derail the feast before it even gets started.

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.

A Thanksgiving Prayer for Those Who Don’t Pray 

A Thanksgiving Prayer for Those Who Don’t  

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