Thomas Jefferson is on the outs. Columbus Day is a shadow of its former self. And Thanksgiving, perhaps most critically, is under pressure. If this most American holiday is ever downgraded from its honored place on the national calendar, it will speak of a profound change in our self-definition.
Thanksgiving dates from before the establishment of the American nation-state, harking back to our original settlers. Although the official holiday was established by the government and is marked by our presidents, it has acquired its layers of meaning through religious faith, informal culinary and social customs and a centuries-old vein of tradition.
It is part of the warp and woof of America, older than the Constitution and deeply rooted in family and hearth.
After their brutal first winter in the New World, the Pilgrims, of course, shared a feast with Wampanoag Indians in 1621. It wasn’t quite the picture-perfect gathering depicted in the famous, anachronistic Jennie Brownscombe painting of 1914 (complete with what looks like a golden-brown Butterball Turkey at the end of the table) but notable all the same.
Their meal was different from ours, with seafood and venison occupying an important place. They also certainly ate birds. One of the participants, Edward Winslow, wrote a letter describing how the “harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might rejoice together.” Turkey wasn’t necessarily on the menu, although the Plymouth Colony governor, William Bradford, made a reference in his journal to the “great store of wild turkeys, of which they took many.”
Technically, the Pilgrims’ celebration was a harvest feast, rather than what they would have understood as a day of thanksgiving, which would have involved fasting and supplications to God. In time, the New England colonies established annual general thanksgiving days not occasioned by any specific event, although they, too, were solemn occasions. From these sources, as Melanie Kirkpatrick explains in her excellent book on the holiday, Thanksgiving as we know it arose.
It is a thread that runs throughout American history. In 1778, the Continental Congress designated Dec. 30 “to be observed as a day of public thanksgiving and praise.” George Washington made the first presidential proclamation in 1789, urging gratitude “for the signal and manifold mercies, and the favorable interpositions of his providence, which we experienced in the course and conclusion of the late war.”
In 1863, Abraham Lincoln declared a national day of Thanksgiving — designating it the last Thursday of November — and every president has done the same since with occasional deviations regarding the day.
Even the connection to football stretches back to a Princeton-Yale game in 1873, which became an annual tradition in New York City. Long before the Detroit Lions and Dallas Cowboys made playing on Thanksgiving one of their signatures, colleges and high schools scheduled rivalry games for the day.
The holiday is linked in the American imagination — and in fact — with the gathering of family and with warmth and plenty. The widely reproduced 1861 George Durrie painting “Home to Thanksgiving” depicts a couple returning to a snow-covered farm for the holiday being greeted by an older couple at the door of the house welcoming them back home. The even more famous Norman Rockwell painting from 80 years later, “Freedom from Want,” might as well be the continuation of the Durrie scene, now indoors. An elderly couple serves a big, juicy bird to a beaming family around the table.
For most Americans, the day still functions as the great 19th-century promoter of the holiday, Sarah Josepha Hale, hoped it would. “Such social rejoicings,” she wrote in 1857, “tend greatly to expand the generous feelings of our nature, and strengthen the bond of union that binds us brothers and sisters in that true sympathy of American patriotism.”
If that ever stops being so, we will be a different country and poorer for it.
Excerpted from “The Case for Nationalism.”