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Pass the turkey, hold the pilgrim
It's time to forget the history that never was
Thanksgiving: The Biography of an American Holiday
By James W. Baker
University of New Hampshire Press
Baker makes a convincing case that there is no historical link between modern Thanksgiving and the 1621 Plymouth thanksgiving event—mainly due to the fact that the story itself was lost until the 1820s and only became widely known by the late 19th Century. (No presidential proclamation mentioned Pilgrims by name until 1939.) By the time the Pilgrim and Indian story was found, New Englanders had been having “turkey days” for over two centuries! The pilgrim story was tacked onto an existing tradition, not the source of the tradition itself.
This complicates recent debates about the relationship of the holiday to Native Indians. Since the 1970s Thanksgiving has become a flashpoint for culture wars around Native Indian issues and American identity. But what does it mean to fight over a myth—to replace a false origin story with a new one?
Harvest thanksgiving days are found around the world, in all cultures. Thanksgiving days predated colonization. In colonial New England they were held on a different day each year, and on different days for each community. As New Englanders expanded into the rest of the continent in the early 19th Century, the New England meal—turkey, stuffing, cranberry sauce, pumpkin pie—became the American standard. The “Pilgrim and Indian” story has waxed and waned in importance. Today it is almost entirely a juvenile thing, a kind of fairy tale. And I suspect that most American families go through travel, family, turkey, parade, football, shopping without a single thought of Plymouth.
After reading Baker’s book, I’m tempted to say, better to throw the whole Pilgrim thing out. Keep Thanksgiving as a civic “harvest” holiday (no Pilgrims necessary—they weren’t needed in the first place) and push for greater recognition of Indigenous Peoples’ Day (October 12) and to make Native American Indian Heritage Month (November) permanent and significant.
If anything, Thanksgiving memorializes our agrarian past, when prosperity depended on the local harvest, which was never entirely a sure thing. Back then, thanksgiving was kind of Halloween (harvest party), Thanksgiving (dinner), Christmas (winter festival), and New Years Eve (end of the year reflection)—all rolled into one!
Although the holiday drips with nostalgia today, either for our own childhoods or a bygone colonial era, that wasn’t always the case. Thanksgiving was not originally performed in nostalgic ways. It was primarily a celebration of that year—what had been accomplished and produced in preceding months. Only in modern times do we look back nostalgically, trying to recapture a lost innocence, an “authentic” Thanksgiving. Modern holidays, unlike premodern ones, are all about attempting to recover something we feel like we’ve lost.
Of the three “holiday season” holidays, Thanksgiving is the one that isn’t centered around children. It’s all about the extended adult family, spread out but coming back together. And that may ultimately be the future meaning of Thanksgiving—trying to hang on to those familial ties that seem to get thinner with every generation. Like Valentines Day, Mothers Day, and Fathers Day, it’s that sense of obligation, like some invisible gravitational field, that keeps pulling us back, year after year, to do our familial duty.
At least Thanksgiving has good food.
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