Thanksgiving: The Holiday at the Heart of the American Experience

Across the country this week, we gather together to celebrate Thanksgiving—our beloved homegrown holiday, a thoroughly admirable American tradition emphasizing family reunions, a grand meal, generosity toward the poor, a spirit of gratitude, and, since the late eighteenth century, the avid watching of football games.

But . . . is the history of the day really so admirable? There are cynics—many of them in high schools and colleges—who, mindful of the European settlers’ eventual devastating warfare against Native Americans—call Thanksgiving a day of “aggression and enslavement,” a day commemorating “genocide and American imperialism.” Happily, the account in Melanie Kirkpatrick’s heartening book Thanksgiving: the Holiday at the Heart of the American Experience belies those charges. Surprisingly (to an adult who is painfully aware of our country’s flaws), Kirkpatrick reveals to us a history that’s as uplifting as the tale we learned in elementary school.

That old tale is true: In the late summer or early fall of 1621, the Pilgrims of Massachusetts’s Plymouth Colony did indeed invite their neighbors, the Wampanoag Indians, to a feast, a feast that lasted for three days. As we learned as children, there was harmony between the settlers and the Native Americans—a peace that lasted for 50 years. The settlers owed their lives to the Wampanoag’s chief, Massasoit, and a Patuxet tribesman, Squanto. Massasoit “laid the groundwork for the peace that reigned on Thanksgiving Day,” and Squanto provided invaluable planting guidance to the strangers in an alien land. (Miraculously, he befriended the settlers despite having been abducted twice by European traders and, once, sold into slavery in Spain. He was finally able to buy his passage back to his village, whose ruins were on the very spot where the Pilgrims had set up their colony. The villagers had died from disease—possibly yellow fever brought to America by the Europeans.)

The harmony between the settlers and the Wampanoag tribe was such that Massasoit told colonist Edward Winslow that “the English are my friends, and love me,” and when Squanto died in 1622, Kirkpatrick notes, “he bequeathed his meager belongings to his English ‘friends’—to use Governor Bradford’s word.”

The positive history continues. As the idea of setting an annual day of thanksgiving spread throughout the colonies, the spirit of religious inclusion reigned. George Washington’s 1789 proclamation is a good example: It is ecumenical, specifying no particular religion. The first line, which set the standard for future presidential proclamations, declared that it was “the duty of all Nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God.” His proclamation of 1795 was even more explicitly ecumenical, Kirkpatrick writes. It reads, “I, George Washington, President of the United States, do recommend to all religious societies and denominations, and to all persons whomsoever, within the United States to set apart and observe Thursday, the 19th day of February next as a day of public thanksgiving and prayer . . .”

Thanksgiving’s “Godmother”
By the time of the Civil War, Thanksgiving was celebrated in most of the states; the individual governors set the date. The holiday was celebrated as a day off from work, attendance at religious services, and usually a festive gathering at home.

Two months after the Battle of Gettysburg (July 1 to 3, 1863), President Lincoln called for a day of thanksgiving for Union military victories. Two months later, he did what Kirkpatrick calls “surprising”: He called for a second day of thanksgiving—“not for military victories, but a general thanks for the entire nation’s general blessings.”

Why did the president call for a second thanksgiving? Probably because he’d been worked upon by the formidable Sarah Josepha Hale, “the godmother of Thanksgiving.” One of the book’s virtues is that it introduces readers to this fabulous (but little-known) woman: prolific author, brilliant “editress,” abolitionist, tireless advocate for women’s rights, widowed mother raising five children on her own . . .and fierce lobbyist for the establishment of a national day of thanksgiving, which, she believed, would have a “deep moral influence” on Americans’ character.

Having turned Godey’s Lady’s Book into the most widely read periodical on the eve of the Civil War, editress Hale produced story after story (fiction and nonfiction) expressing the desirability of establishing this patriotic occasion. For decades she wrote presidents, governors, congressmen. On September 28, 1863, she wrote President Lincoln, pressing her case and urging Lincoln to name the last Thursday in November as a day of national thanksgiving. Significantly, five days later came Lincoln’s second, surprising, proclamation, setting the date of Thanksgiving Day as the last Thursday in November; his proclamation is considered the beginning of our national Thanksgiving holiday.

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  • Susanna Gaertner November 20, 2017 at 5:07 pm

    Deb, this is terrific! Historical contrasts within the greater human context…your customary fusion of the learn-worthy with factoid fun.
    Here’s wishing you and J and the rest of your family a wonderful Thanksgiving!