I’m sitting by the window on a rainy autumn day. The leaves have fallen from the trees, save for a few stragglers, and I already miss the way the vibrant yellows, oranges, and reds look against dark branches and blue skies.
This is comfort-food weather and a homemade soup is gurgling on the stove while I listen to a talk radio show about the origins of Thanksgiving. One of the guests is food historian Andrew F. Smith who dedicates a chapter of his book, Eating History: Thirty Turning Points in the Making of American Cuisine, to the real Thanksgiving story. I hear him say that the Pilgrim-centric Thanksgiving story is a complete myth (no surprise) but I’m flummoxed when I realize how little I know about the holiday I’ve celebrated every year since I can remember.
It is true that in 1621 the Pilgrims and a group of local Indians shared a meal together, but it was unplanned. The colonists had just harvested their crops and the then-governor declared it a holiday. This happened concurrent with a treaty signing between the English colonists and local Native American tribe of which ninety members paid a surprise visit to the colony and shared in the festivities to consummate the treaty. But this was not a regular occurrence and it was not referred to as Thanksgiving. Rather, the Pilgrims celebrated many days of “thanksgiving,” a tradition with religious underpinnings that the Europeans brought with them to the New World and which entailed spending the day in solemn worship.
Over the course of the next two hundred years, the religious tradition of giving thanks to God after the fall harvest became more secularized. In 1841, Alexander Young, a Unitarian minister, published a research paper about the colonists, adding commentary in a footnote that the 1621 event was the first of many Thanksgiving feasts.
Twenty-two years later, Sarah Josepha Hale, a writer who believed that if the nation celebrated a holiday together (at the time there were only two national holidays, George Washington’s birthday and the Fourth of July), its people were destined to be united in all things. She thusly published a novel in which she wrote a scene about a quintessentially festive dinner of roasted turkey, cranberries and pies, the model for the modern-day Thanksgiving meal.
Hale gained notoriety and became an influential writer and editor with a broad readership. Over the years, she successfully lobbied Congress and other politicians to declare Thanksgiving a national holiday. In August of 1863, at the height of the Civil War and just after the battles at Vicksburg and Gettysburg, victories for which the North was surely thankful, President Lincoln proclaimed Thanksgiving a national holiday.
All of this makes me reflect on how traditions and cuisines evolve over time, shaped by socio-political trends and cultural milieux like beach glass smoothed by ocean waves. I think about how this happens when immigrants arrive and assimilate in any new country. According to Smith, the
[r]apid adoption of the Thanksgiving myth has less to do with historical fact and more to do with the arrival of hundreds of thousands of immigrants to the United States in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In the face of this great wave of immigrants from so many lands, the public education system’s major task was to Americanize them by creating a common understanding of the nation’s history, in particular an easily understood history of America.
America is a melting pot, as the saying goes, and I’m thankful for its diversity of people and ideas, important ingredients in an open and democratic society. I’m also very grateful to be the product of two cultures and for all the perspective that this affords me. And while Thanksgiving isn’t the result of two different communities coming together in appreciation of their cultural differences as we were taught in grade school, I nonetheless appreciate the evolution of a holiday that brings people together to share a home-cooked meal.
So, this year, I say thanks for Thanksgiving!