Thanksgiving and Folklore

It's that time of year again! So here is my post from last year about Thanksgiving. At that time, I wasn't teaching my Folklore course and wanted to. This year, I am, and I'm thankful for that!

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

Not that Puritans and Native Americans 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 abstractions, 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).

Another point is that holidays will accummulate traditions which are explained/justified/linked to the holiday's history AFTER they have accummulated. Human beings are wonderful at seeing connections; they are also wonderful at having purely visceral reactions. So . . . let's have a parade! BECAUSE . . . the Pilgrims and Indians would want us to.

Here's the history. During the Civil War, Sarah Josepha Hale (of "Mary had a little lamb" fame) became obsessed (there's really no other word for it) with the idea of a National Thanksgiving Holiday. Hale wrote for/edited several women's magazines. She used her position to write numerous letters and editorials and articles, etc. etc. etc. about how awesome it would be to have a National Thanksgiving Holiday.

Hale was not particularly interested in Pilgrims and Native Americans. She was more interested in a holiday that would unite the United States (this was 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 many ways, Hale was the soul-sister of Martha Stewart since what she really wanted was for everyone to come to dinner. (And 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.)

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, not only was the "traditional" story not linked to the holiday until well after it was first suggested, the reality of the "traditional" story at the time the link was made had been--true to the exigencies of communal memory--forgotten; the real threat felt by both Pilgrims and Native Americans for 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 Native Americans 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 events took place.

Not to mention that communal memories that have a shelf-life of OVER 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. Of course, this approach has its own problems. 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 (Barry's point) but hasn't stopped many university programs from practicing this approach at the expense of more accurate/less "fair" history.

Thanksgiving Traditions in Literature/Popular Culture: "John Inglefield's Thanksgiving" by Hawthorne (holiday ghost story); "Two Thanksgiving Gentlemen" by O'Henry (combines motifs of charity with eating too much); "Over the River and Through the Wood" by Lydia Maria Francis Child; numerous sitcoms where characters bemoan the preparation work of Thanksgiving and mention football.

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