Folklore: Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving, as it is known in America, is a relatively new holiday . . . despite the supposed link to Pilgrims and Indians!

Not that the Pilgrims and Indians didn't lunch together--only, at the time, the involved parties weren't thinking, "Hey, this is Thanksgiving!" although they may have been thinking of "thanksgiving." People are generally glad not to be dead from starvation.

Not to overwhelm anyone with semantics, but holidays usually become holidays once the thing they become a holiday for is long past. This is true of most commemorations: the Vietnam War Memorial was completed in 1982; the Korean War Veterans Memorial in 1995; and the World War II Memorial--for the war we won!--in 2004.

Commemoration always seems to occur when people fear that the thing being commemorated has already been forgotten (and it probably has).

Thanksgiving follows a similar pattern. During the Civil War, Sarah Josepha Hale, a kind of early Martha Stewart, became obsessed (sorry, there's no other word for it) with the idea of a National Thanksgiving Holiday. In many ways, she was the soul-sister of Martha Stewart since the creation of the holiday led to literally thousands of books on "how to cook the perfect turkey" and "holiday crafts that children will be forced to make and then scatter about your house!" (not that I minded the crafts as a child; I only became anti-crafts as an adult). Hale wrote for several women's magazines.

Hale was not particularly interested in Pilgrims and Native Americans. She was more interested in a holiday that would unite the United States (remember, this is pre-Civil War), specifically, a holiday that had New England origins. Harvest festivals and days of thanksgiving were part of early colonial life, and thanksgiving dinners were already being practiced in New England in the 19th century.

In October 1863, Lincoln caved, issuing a Proclamation of Thanksgiving for the last Thursday of November for Federal employees and DC residents. However, Hale died long before Congress passed Thanksgiving as a legal holiday in 1941.

Here's the commemoration bit: although Hale started campaigning for a Thanksgiving holiday in the mid-1800s, that holiday was not linked to Indians feeding poor starving Pilgrims until the late 1800s; by then, the Mayflower had become a founding story, and Native Americans were no longer a perceived threat in the United States.

In other words, the reality of the historical event had been--true to the exigencies of communal memory--forgotten; the real threat felt by both Pilgrims and Native Americans regarding each other no longer existed. (As several people point out in the Buffy episode "Pangs," you can't just apologize for wiping out a civilization plus it is against human instinct to simply roll over and play dead just because you feel very, very, very bad; the politically-correct Willow still fights the ghost Indians to save her friends.)

All this sounds much more cynical than I mean it to. I'm all in favor of Thanksgiving personally and although I sympathize with those who commemorate it as a National Day of Mourning (if commemoration is going around, why not commemorate the way one wants to commemorate?), I think the symbolic gesture kind of misses the point. Thanksgiving Day started out as Martha Stewart personified and ended up as football, turkey, days off from school, and Christmas shopping (all of which is not too far afield from the original gesture; I guess Hale had a point); the later linkages occurred long after any actual conquest took place.

Not to mention that communal memories that don't have a shelf-life of thirty years tend to create miserable places to live: hence, the Middle East.

On the other hand, I was raised on the Thanksgiving=Pilgrims & Indians story, so the link is there, however erroneous. I wasn't raised on it in a nasty way, and I never took it very seriously (it may help the cynics amongst my readers if I clarify that I have rarely in my life believed anything a teacher told me, but that doesn't mean I feel betrayed or anything [gasp! I was lied to in high school! gasp! gasp!]; I figure that in a democracy, obtaining and discerning correct information is my responsibility).

Misguided or not, I wasn't taught Thanksgiving folklore in a "We came, we saw, we conquered" sense but in multicultural sense. As Dave Barry writes in his A Sort of History of the United States, "Also we should keep in mind that women and minority groups were continuing to make some gigantic contributions"--which is completely patronizing (kind of Barry's point) but hasn't stopped many university programs from practicing this approach at the expense of more accurate/less "fair" history.

Literary/Popular Cultural Occurrences: I haven't been able to find any! I'm fairly certain that Harriet Beecher Stowe--the other Martha Stewart of the 19th century--referred to Thanksgiving Day in her writing. Otherwise, not including Buffy, I haven't been able to track down many literary/pop culture Thanksgivings that refer to the Pilgrim/Indian folktale. Either this is a folktale with relatively low flexibility or it is dying out. Football, turkey, and days off have taken its place: a triumph for secularism!

1 comment:

  1. Spike: You won. All right? You came in and you killed them and you took their land. That's what conquering nations do. It's what Caesar did, and he's not goin' around saying, "I came, I conquered, I felt really bad about it." The history of the world is not people making friends. You had better weapons, and you massacred them. End of story.

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