Thomas Jefferson is out. Columbus Day is a shadow of its former self. And Thanksgiving, perhaps most seriously, is under pressure. If this most American holiday ever is downgraded from its venerable spot on the national calendar, it would speak of a profound shift in our self-definition.
Thanksgiving dates back to the founding of the American nation-state, harking back to our original settlers. Although the official holiday was established by the government and is marked by our presidents, it has acquired its own layers of meaning through a centuries-old vein of religious belief, informal culinary and social customs, and tradition.
It is part of America’s fabric, which is older than the Constitution and deeply rooted in family and hearth.
After their brutal first winter in the New World, the Pilgrims, of course, shared a feast with the Wampanoag Indians in 1621. It was not the picture-perfect gathering depicted in the famous, chronological Jenny Brownscomb painting of 1914. Looks like a golden-brown butterball turkey at the end of the table) but all the same.
Their cuisine was different from ours, with seafood and venison holding an important place. They certainly ate birds too. One of the participants, Edward Winslow, wrote a letter describing how “being entered into the harvest, our governor sent four men on fouling, so that we might rejoice together.” Turkey was not necessarily on the menu, although William Bradford, the governor of the Plymouth Colony, referred to “great stockpiles of wild turkeys, of which he took many” in his journal.
Technically, the Pilgrim’s celebration was a harvest festival, rather than what they understood as a day of thanksgiving, which would have included fasting and prayer to God. Over time, the colonies of New England established annual general Thanksgiving Days, which were not due to any special events, although they, too, were solemn occasions. From these sources, as Melanie Kirkpatrick explains in her excellent book on the holiday, Thanksgiving as we know it originated.
This is a thread that runs throughout American history. In 1778, the Continental Congress designated 30 December “to be observed as a day of public thanks and appreciation”. George Washington declared the first president in 1789, “urging gratitude for the signs and manifold mercy, and for the friendly contraventions of His Providence, which we experienced during the late war and in the closing.”
In 1863, Abraham Lincoln declared Thanksgiving a national day—designating it the last Thursday of November—and every president has done the same, with occasional deviations regarding the day.
Even the association with football is linked to the 1873 Princeton-Yale game, which became an annual tradition in New York City. Long before the Detroit Lions and Dallas Cowboys played on Thanksgiving, their signings, colleges and high schools set the rivalry game for the day.
The holiday is associated in the American imagination – and indeed – with family gatherings and with warmth and abundance. The widely reproduced 1861 George Durie painting “Home to Thanksgiving” depicts a couple returning to a snow-covered farm to be welcomed at the door of the house by an older couple. An even more famous Norman Rockwell painting from 80 years later, “Freedom from Want”, may well be a continuation of the Drury scene, which is now indoors. An elderly couple serves a large, succulent bird to the family with a beaming around the table.
For most Americans, the day still serves as the great 19th-century promoter of the holiday, Sarah Josepha Hale, hopes it will. “Such social enjoyment,” she wrote in 1857, “extends the benevolent feelings of our nature, and strengthens the bonds of union that bind us brothers and sisters in true sympathy of American patriotism.”
If that ever stops being like that, we will be a different country and poorer for it.
Excerpt from “The Case for Nationalism”.