I consider Thanksgiving the quintessentially American holiday, though four other nations have official, annual Thanksgiving Days: Canada, Liberia, the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico and Norfolk Island, in the South Pacific.
Many countries celebrate their own Independence, Veterans and Memorial Days. For Americans, from our earliest collective experience, giving thanks has been embedded in our consciousness.
Everyone knows the legend of the “first” Thanksgiving feast in Plymouth, Mass. in 1621. But the first documented thanksgiving celebrations on what would become U.S. soil actually took place a century earlier, as Spanish explorers celebrated their treks across an unforgiving ocean and safe landings in what we now call Florida and Texas.
Settlers routinely gave thanks as they landed on our then-pristine shores. The first permanent settlement at Jamestown, Va. held its first thanksgiving in 1610. Another English group that settled not far from Jamestown in 1619 had a charter that required that its safe landing be observed yearly as a thanksgiving day.
Our traditional image of Thanksgiving comes from the Plymouth feast, a story that began with separatists who fled the United Kingdom to escape religious oppression and persecution – tired, poor, huddled masses longing to be free. In September 1620, 102 of the group we now call the Plymouth Pilgrims headed for New England. They landed on the coast of Cape Cod 65 days later.
After a brutal winter of snow, ice, influenza and scurvy – the Pilgrims subsisted on food they stole from graves and an abandoned Wampanoag village wiped out three years earlier by smallpox from Europe – only 47 lived to see springtime in Massachusetts.
When the survivors recovered, the Wampanoag taught them how to hunt eel and grow corn. That autumn they celebrated their bumper crops, wild turkeys, venison, and the generosity of the Wampanoags with a three-day thanksgiving feast.
The colonists who formed and shaped the United States of America brought with them a religious fervor for giving thanks. They joined Native Americans who already had long traditions of grateful living in their own cultures.
Days of giving thanks peppered the Revolutionary War. George Washington established the first Thanksgiving Day in the new United States of America when he declared Thursday, Nov. 26, 1789 as a day “devoted by the People of these States to the service of that great and glorious Being, who is the beneficent Author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be.”
Seventy-four years later, Abraham Lincoln established the Thanksgiving Day we celebrate today, in an effort to find common ground to end the bloodshed between the North and the South. His 1863 proclamation marveled that the United States managed to prosper in spite of the brutal Civil War, which he viewed as a terrible national sin. And he noted that in the face of carnage on the battlefield, babies were still born, crops flourished and – except within our own borders – the United States at last knew peace with the rest of the world.
“No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things,” the proclamation stated. “They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy.”
The last Thursday of November became Thanksgiving Day from Lincoln’s time until 1939. That year November had five Thursdays, and President Franklin D. Roosevelt decided that with the Great Depression gripping the nation, merchants needed an extra week of holiday spending.
In those days it was considered gauche – almost unthinkable – to advertise for Christmas until after Thanksgiving had passed. Macy’s founder Fred Lazarus Jr. persuaded Roosevelt that the change – and the ensuing extra week of shopping – would help cure the nation’s economic woes, not to mention Macy’s.
So FDR simply stated that Thanksgiving would be on the fourth Thursday of November instead of the last Thursday, and directed Congress to do his bidding – something he did fairly often during his 12 years in the Oval Office.
Roosevelt’s bidding became law two years later, but not before some bitter politicking.
The first year, Republicans condemned the change as an affront to the memory of Lincoln.
They called Thursday, Nov. 30, 1939, “Republican Thanksgiving,” and called FDR’s date a week earlier “Franksgiving.”
Presidential proclamations are not legally binding, so 23 states that year celebrated “Franksgiving” while another 22 celebrated on Lincoln’s day.
The remaining states, including Texas, couldn’t decide and took both days as government holidays.
It took the Lone Star State 17 years – until 1956 – to join the rest of the country in celebrating Thanksgiving FDR’s way.
Thanksgiving in America wouldn’t be Thanksgiving at all without a little goodwill, charity, and a bit of mercy for humankind.
And turkeys. Ronald Reagan’s Thanksgiving turkey received the first presidential pardon in 1987, a tradition continued by every president since.
Before that, John F. Kennedy expressed his dissatisfaction with the size of his 1963 Thanksgiving bird and sent it back to the farm to “grow,” just four days before an assassin’s bullet ended his life in a Dallas motorcade.
Unfortunately for presidentially pardoned turkeys, birds in the U.S. are bred and raised for size at the expense of longevity, and die within weeks or months after being spared the White House butcher’s block.
Which brings me back to the point that Thanksgiving is a quintessential American holiday.
We are a successful nation and revel in our excess as much as in our ingenuity. We breed the fattest, breastiest, shortest-lived turkeys, 242 million of them in 2013: three-quarters of a turkey for every man, woman and child living in the country.
Our superfarms produced 768 million pounds of cranberries and 2.6 billion pounds of sweet potatoes in 2012, much of which will find a place on our Thanksgiving tables.
More than 98 percent of the households in our nation own at least one television, perfect for watching football and perpetuating our food-induced comas.
Well, maybe not. We the People – millions of us – will flee our families in mid-afternoon Thursday to pursue an early edition of our true national pastime: consumer spending.
If Fred Lazarus Jr. were alive today, he’d be smiling and rubbing his palms in anticipation of the crowds who couldn’t wait until 4 a.m. Friday to hand over their money – which used to be good enough, until the Waltons realized last year that they could open on Thanksgiving night, and get away with it.
This year retailers everywhere are in on the act. They’re all opening earlier, trying to outdo each other in this grand competition for the contents of our bank accounts. And whatever hue and cry there is will be tempered by astounding crowds and the subsequent tramplings and shootings that always accompany the nobly American quest for a $49 flat-screen TV.
It won’t surprise me if next year stores don’t bother to close on Wednesday night at all. Black Friday will become Black Long-Weekend, and our Thanksgiving dinners will be Cinnabons and Hot Dog on a Stick eating standing up, during breathers in our five-day shopping marathons.
All of this is so far from the origins of our holiday, our Thanksgiving Day, and yet so close. Americans have always enjoyed bounty. We have always loved our things, luxuries alien to much of the rest of the world. On a national scale, we don’t know what it means to want or suffer. And with the exception of a single day at Pearl Harbor and our Civil War, we have been spared the worldwide reality of invading armies and coups d’état and the horrors of war on our own soil.
We just have a different way of showing our gratitude in 2013 than the Pilgrims did in 1621. Then: a three-day feast. Now: An abbreviated feast, followed by a four-day shopping spree for things we don’t need but can’t possibly live without.
On the bright side, maybe our fervent spending will end the economic malaise that’s gripped us for way too long.
As for me and mine, we choose not to participate in the modern consumerist trappings that have become Thanksgiving Day. Instead, we cook together – a long laborious process that is as bonding as it is satisfying – using fresh and local food as much as we can.
We make lists of the things we’re grateful for – things we don’t need but have anyway, because we’re fortunate enough to live in the United States of America. Tangible things like home and warm clothes and food, but also the intangibles we enjoy every day whether we realize it or not – a stable, if inefficient, government, the right to believe and say and write whatever cockamamie thing we want because laws and order keep us safe and free.
We remember loved ones we’ve lost along the way. It’s not hard, since we feel the empty wistfulness their absence leaves at our table and in the kitchen. Some years the ache is bitter and the loneliness stings, but we still feel blessed that for a time we got to walk the road of life with them by our side.
Most of all, we keep it simple. We give thanks. We’re quiet. We’re contemplative.
And so quintessentially un-American.
- Open Committees
- Police Killing