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Melanie Kirkpatrick on Thanksgiving, America’s Healing Holiday

How can Americans help to mend our country after this fractious political season? One answer has to do with Thanksgiving, journalist-author Melanie Kirkpatrick told Women’s Voices. This year, she says, the beloved national holiday “will be a special time of healing, of remembering what unites us as a nation, not what divides us.” That’s why her new book, Thanksgiving: The Holiday at the Heart of the American Experience, is so timely.

Thanksgiving is a sparkling history of Americans’ favorite holiday, covering four centuries of American history and shared culture. Amity Shlaes, author of a history of the Great Depression, The Forgotten Man, calls it “An edifying, elevating book in the year of our worst division. Thanksgiving uplifts by informing and takes us to our better, internal American.’”

Kirkpatrick’s favorite character in her book is a 19th-century woman who, like Melanie  herself, was an influential editor.  Sarah Josepha Hale was editor of the most popular magazine of the pre-Civil War era, Godey’s Lady’s Book.  Her brilliance lay in understanding that readers wanted to read about American topics written by American authors. This wasn’t an obvious insight back then. Most other editors of the day reprinted articles that had appeared in English publications.

In contrast, Hale commissioned articles on American topics written by American authors such as Harriet Beecher Stowe and Nathaniel Hawthorne.  Another of the authors she published, Edgar Allan Poe, called Hale a woman of “masculine energy”—a phrase that elicits a laugh from Kirkpatrick as she relates Poe’s compliment.

Hale is often called the “godmother of Thanksgiving.” By the early 19th century, just about every state and territory was celebrating an annual Thanksgiving, but they did so on a wide variety of dates.  Individual governors proclaimed state Thanksgiving Days on days that ranged from September to December.  Hale campaigned for the president to set a date for all Americans to celebrate together.  She believed that Thanksgiving could be a unifying force in a country then fracturing over the issue of slavery.

In 1863, Abraham Lincoln heeded Hale’s call for a national holiday, proclaiming the first in what has become an unbroken series of national Thanksgivings.  It was a turbulent time in American history.  “If we think Americans are divided today about the proper course for our nation,” Kirkpatrick says, “consider the situation at the time of Thanksgiving 1863, when Americans were killing each other.”

51pvi1kimzl-_sy344_bo1204203200_Kirkpatrick’s interest in writing about Thanksgiving dates back to September 11, 2001. She was in Lower Manhattan on that morning, on her way to work at the Wall Street Journal offices in the World Financial Center. She watched the Towers fall.

In the wake of the terrorist attacks, she, like many Americans, became interested in probing the question of what it means to be an American.  She became fascinated with the story of the First Thanksgiving while reading William Bradford’s memoir, Of Plymouth Plantation.  Bradford was governor of Plymouth Colony, founded in 1620 by the Pilgrims, the little band of religious dissidents who crossed the Atlantic in the Mayflower.

Within that memoir is Bradford’s brief account of the three-day feast the Pilgrims threw in 1621, to which they famously invited their neighbors, 90 members of the Wampanoag Confederation of Indians.  This event—which is now known as the “First Thanksgiving”—was not a thanksgiving at all from the Pilgrims’ point of view; for them, a thanksgiving was a religious affair, a day spent in worship.  But the spirit of welcome, tolerance, and generosity that the gathering embodied—the peace between the settlers and the Wampanoag lasted for 50 years—have made it the popular symbol of Thanksgiving as we now celebrate it.

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  • Andrea November 17, 2016 at 10:25 am

    An inspiring woman and a great read! Perfect holiday gift for thanksgiving guests!!