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Comments by YACCS
Thursday, November 27, 2003

The real Thanksgiving

I asked my six year old niece about what thanksgiving was. It's the kind of thing they usually teach first graders and I wanted to know what her answer would be. She said, "It was a day for giving thanks". And then "the Indians and the Pilgrims had a feast". Now, that's acceptable for a six year old growing up in New England, but we can handle a more accurate version of history.

Now, we all know that the Pilgrims were Calvinist pains in the ass and drove both the British and Dutch crazy. They were only too glad to boot them out into the wilderness. And when they arrived, they didn't see the Indians as friendly hosts, but rivals. If you go to Connecticut today, you'll see the legacy of mistrust between whites and natives. We call them Mohegan Sun and Foxwoods. They can build casinos because of the treaties the whites were forced to sign and which are still in force. In reality, the first thanksgiving was more like the wartime truce between the Germans and Brits on the Western Front than some coming together in harmony.

3. The Pilgrims were not just innocent refugees from religious persecution. They were victims of bigotry in England, but some of them were themselves religious bigots by our modern standards. The Puritans and the Pilgrims saw themselves as the "Chosen Elect" mentioned in the book of Revelation. They strove to "purify" first themselves and then everyone else of everything they did not accept in their own interpretation of scripture. Later New England Puritans used any means, including deceptions, treachery, torture, war, and genocide to achieve that end.(4) They saw themselves as fighting a holy war against Satan, and everyone who disagreed with them was the enemy. This rigid fundamentalism was transmitted to America by the Plymouth colonists, and it sheds a very different light on the "Pilgrim" image we have of them. This is best illustrated in the written text of the Thanksgiving sermon delivered at Plymouth in 1623 by "Mather the Elder." In it, Mather the Elder gave special thanks to God for the devastating plague of smallpox which wiped out the majority of the Wampanoag Indians who had been their benefactors. He praised God for destroying "chiefly young men and children, the very seeds of increase, thus clearing the forests to make way for a better growth", i.e., the Pilgrims.(5) In as much as these Indians were the Pilgrim's benefactors, and Squanto, in particular, was the instrument of their salvation that first year, how are we to interpret this apparent callousness towards their misfortune?

4. The Wampanoag Indians were not the "friendly savages" some of us were told about when we were in the primary grades. Nor were they invited out of the goodness of the Pilgrims' hearts to share the fruits of the Pilgrims' harvest in a demonstration of Christian charity and interracial brotherhood. The Wampanoag were members of a widespread confederacy of Algonkian-speaking peoples known as the League of the Delaware. For six hundred years they had been defending themselves from my other ancestors, the Iroquois, and for the last hundred years they had also had encounters with European fishermen and explorers but especially with European slavers, who had been raiding their coastal villages.(6) They knew something of the power of the white people, and they did not fully trust them. But their religion taught that they were to give charity to the helpless and hospitality to anyone who came to them with empty hands.(7) Also, Squanto, the Indian hero of the Thanksgiving story, had a very real love for a British explorer named John Weymouth, who had become a second father to him several years before the Pilgrims arrived at Plymouth. Clearly, Squanto saw these Pilgrims as Weymouth's people.(8) To the Pilgrims the Indians were heathens and, therefore, the natural instruments of the Devil. Squanto, as the only educated and baptized Christian among the Wampanoag, was seen as merely an instrument of God, set in the wilderness to provide for the survival of His chosen people, the Pilgrims. The Indians were comparatively powerful and, therefore, dangerous; and they were to be courted until the next ships arrived with more Pilgrim colonists and the balance of power shifted. The Wampanoag were actually invited to that Thanksgiving feast for the purpose of negotiating a treaty that would secure the lands of the Plymouth Plantation for the Pilgrims. It should also be noted that the INDIANS, possibly out of a sense of charity toward their hosts, ended up bringing the majority of the food for the feast.(9)

5. A generation later, after the balance of power had indeed shifted, the Indian and White children of that Thanksgiving were striving to kill each other in the genocidal conflict known as King Philip's War. At the end of that conflict most of the New England Indians were either exterminated or refugees among the French in Canada, or they were sold into slavery in the Carolinas by the Puritans. So successful was this early trade in Indian slaves that several Puritan ship owners in Boston began the practice of raiding the Ivory Coast of Africa for black slaves to sell to the proprietary colonies of the South, thus founding the American-based slave trade.(10)


So it wasn't just a happy gathering of neighbors. And it was an exceptional moment, not a harbinger of peace.

But the tradition of Thanksgiving, not the actual day, has a very different meaning. The legend of Thanksgiving is probably far more important than the actual event, because, despite the realities, it does set a prescident of interethnic harmony and unity. The myth defines America in a way that the reality never could. While the Pilgrims and Indians routinely savaged each other in bitter skirmishes, the myth of Thanksgiving reappeared in 1863, during the Civil War. Lincoln used it to call for two days of thanks, one ion August 6th for the victory at Gettysburg and on the last Thursday of November.

In the years after the Civil War, Thanksgiving became the way to create a unified national identity without creating a stultifying myth. In most countries with imnmigrants, France, the UK, Australia, national holidays are about assimiliation and identification. But since there is no one way to be an American, our holidays don't have such a pull. The 4th of July is a very different thing than Bastille day, more picnics and cookouts than military parades.

But Thanksgiving is a unique holiday. It is a national holiday without overt patriotism or religious meaning. It is about food and family. And it embraces the difference within American life. We all agree on the turkey, 95 percent of Americans will eat the bird today, but from there, we all go our different ways, rice and potatoes, green bean casserole and baked ziti. That's not just a dietary choice, but a statement of national unity which goes way, way beyond anything seen on the 4th. If you walk into most American homes today, you will see a turkey, some badly cooked, some moist and juicy, sitting there. It defines us as a single people, with at least one single, shared value, which goes way beyond a bird.

The turkey is about a specific kind of assimilation. All Americans believe, in some degree, in the constitution. It is the bedrock of our civic identity. To be an American, despite the beliefs of some, your skin color, race, religion doesn't matter. But your fundamental belief in the rights of your fellow citizens does. Well, that turkey, as the centerpiece of the thanksgiving dinner does the same thing in terms of food. No matter what you serve it with, thanksgiving turkey is far more a symbol of national untiy than any flag.

Oddly enough, not until 1941 was Thanksgiving was a fixed holiday. Until then, it was up to the President to proclaim the holiday. Well. as with many things, Franklin Roosevelt had a better idea, or so he thought.


On Thanksgiving Day, November 23, 1939, Franklin Roosevelt carved the turkey at the annual Thanksgiving Dinner at Warm Springs, Georgia, and wished all Americans across the country a Happy Thanksgiving. Unfortunately, his greeting went unanswered in some states; many Americans were not observing Thanksgiving on the same day as the President. Instead, they were waiting to carve their turkeys on the following Thursday because November 30th in many states was the official Thanksgiving Day. Two Thanksgivings? Why were Americans celebrating a national holiday on two different days?

At the beginning of Franklin Roosevelt's presidency, Thanksgiving was not a fixed holiday; it was up to the President to issue a Thanksgiving Proclamation to announce what date the holiday would fall on. However, Thanksgiving was always the last Thursday in November because that was the day President Abraham Lincoln observed the holiday when he declared Thanksgiving a national holiday in 1863. Franklin Roosevelt continued that tradition, but he soon found that tradition was difficult to keep in extreme circumstances such as the Great Depression. His first Thanksgiving in office, 1933, fell on November 30th, the last day of the month, because November had five Thursdays that year. Since statistics showed that most people did not do their Christmas shopping until after Thanksgiving, business leaders feared they would lose money, especially during the Depression, because there were only 24 shopping days between Thanksgiving and Christmas. They asked Franklin Roosevelt to make Thanksgiving one week earlier. President Roosevelt ignored those concerns in 1933, but when Thanksgiving once again threatened to fall on the last day of November in 1939, FDR reconsidered the request and moved the date of Thanksgiving up one week. Thanksgiving 1939 would be held, President Roosevelt proclaimed, on November 23rd and not November 30th.

Changing the date of Thanksgiving seemed harmless enough, but in actuality proved quite controversial. It was so upsetting that thousands of letters poured into the White House once President Roosevelt announced the date change. Some retailers were pleased because they hoped the extra week of Christmas shopping would increase profits, but smaller businesses complained they would lose business to larger stores. Other companies that depended on Thanksgiving as the last Thursday of November lost money; calendar makers were the worst hit because they printed calendars years in advance and FDR made their calendars out of date for the next two years. Schools were also disrupted by Roosevelt's decision; most schools had already scheduled vacations and annual Thanksgiving Day football games by the time they learned of Thanksgiving's new date and had to decide whether or not to reschedule everything. Moreover, many Americans were angry that Roosevelt tried to alter such a long-standing tradition and American values just to help businesses make more money.*

As opposition grew, some states took matters into their own hands and defied the Presidential Proclamation. Some governors declared November 30th as Thanksgiving. And so, depending upon where one lived, Thanksgiving was celebrated on the 23rd and the 30th. This was worse than changing the date in the first place because families that lived in states such as New York did not have the same day off as family members in states such as Connecticut! Family and friends were unable to celebrate the holiday together.

Franklin Roosevelt observed Thanksgiving on the second to last Thursday of November for two more years, but the amount of public outrage prompted Congress to pass a law on December 26, 1941, ensuring that all Americans would celebrate a unified Thanksgiving on the fourth Thursday of November every year.


It is surprising to realize that this most national of holidays was dependent on a president's whim until 60 years ago. Which makes it a unique holiday in many ways.



posted by Steve @ 11:59:00 AM

11:59:00 AM

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