Thursday, November 26, 2015

The American national ritual of Thanksgiving

Historian David Silverman in his article on "Thanksgiving Day" for the trusty Encyclopædia Britannica Online describes the origin of the American version of Thanksgiving, aka, Día de Acción de Gracias. It emerged from an event in 1621:

Plymouth’s Thanksgiving began with a few colonists going out “fowling,” possibly for turkeys but more probably for the easier prey of geese and ducks, since they “in one day killed as much as ... served the company almost a week.” Next, 90 or so Wampanoag made a surprise appearance at the settlement’s gate, doubtlessly unnerving the 50 or so colonists. Nevertheless, over the next few days the two groups socialized without incident. The Wampanoag contributed venison to the feast, which included the fowl and probably fish, eels, shellfish, stews, vegetables, and beer. Since Plymouth had few buildings and manufactured goods, most people ate outside while sitting on the ground or on barrels with plates on their laps. The men fired guns, ran races, and drank liquor, struggling to speak in broken English and Wampanoag. This was a rather disorderly affair, but it sealed a treaty between the two groups that lasted until King Philip’s War (1675–76), in which hundreds of colonists and thousands of Indians lost their lives.

The New England colonists were accustomed to regularly celebrating “Thanksgivings,” days of prayer thanking God for blessings such as military victory or the end of a drought. The U.S. Continental Congress proclaimed a national Thanksgiving upon the enactment of the Constitution, for example. Yet, after 1798, the new U.S. Congress left Thanksgiving declarations to the states; some objected to the national government’s involvement in a religious observance, Southerners were slow to adopt a New England custom, and others took offense over the day’s being used to hold partisan speeches and parades. A national Thanksgiving Day seemed more like a lightning rod for controversy than a unifying force.

Thanksgiving Day did not become an official holiday until Northerners dominated the federal government. While sectional tensions prevailed in the mid-19th century, the editor of the popular magazine Godey’s Lady’s Book, Sarah Josepha Hale, campaigned for a national Thanksgiving Day to promote unity. She finally won the support of President Abraham Lincoln. On October 3, 1863, during the Civil War, Lincoln proclaimed a national day of thanksgiving to be celebrated on Thursday, November 26.
Britannica Online also features this undated article By Lorraine Murray, Thanksgiving Day in the United States, which notes:

Given the eventual spread of Europeans and other nonindigenous peoples across North America that began at the colonies of Plymouth and Jamestown (Virginia) and the disastrous effects of that historical tide on the native peoples of the continent, Thanksgiving is not a day of celebration for many Native Americans. The United American Indians of New England mark the annual Thanksgiving Day in an alternative way, as a “National Day of Mourning.”
Like quite a few Salon headlines lately, this one conveys a possibly misleading impression of this article by Chauncey DeVega, Our #blacklivesmatter Thanksgiving: Race, terror, Trump and political correctness collide at Thanksgiving 11/26/2015. But he does make an important point about the ambiguity of the traditional Thanksgiving Day symbolism, pictured here in a 1914 painting called "The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth" by Jennie Augusta Brownscombe:

DeVega writes:

Thanksgiving is a holiday ritual that celebrates family and community. In recounting one of the country’s founding legends—in which Europeans fled religious prosecution, escaped to the “New World,” and then were helped by friendly “Indians”—the American people are supposed to reflect upon their blessings, fortunes and good luck.

Like most national holidays, Thanksgiving is a myth. It does the powerful political work of encouraging American Exceptionalism: a belief that the United States was preordained by “God” for a special place among all others; and that it is a “shining city on the hill.”

In reality, the arrival of the Mayflower (and other European explorers and colonists in the “New World”) would help to set into motion two of the greatest crimes in human history: the genocide of First Nations peoples and the enslavement and mass murder of black Americans. Stolen land and stolen labor are the twin bedrocks of American empire. Their influence was (and remains) so profoundly deep that it would take a civil war (what was really a second American Revolution) and then 100 years of additional struggle to strike down white supremacy as the formal public policy of the United States.
On the other hand, he notes in a paragraph that in the article appears in parentheses:

One should not overlook how Thanksgiving was a source of political controversy during the American slaveocracy. The South refused to celebrate Thanksgiving because it was viewed as a way for “Abolitionists” and “Yankees” to undermine the institution of white on black chattel slavery. Thanksgiving would be fully embraced as an “American” holiday after the end of the Civil War when apartheid was reinstated across the South after the fall of Reconstruction. White America could celebrate Thanksgiving as one nation only when black American citizens were denied their equal rights.
The first link in that quoted paragraph is to Robert Moss, How Thanksgiving, the 'Yankee Abolitionist Holiday,' Won Over the South Serious Eats 11/13/2014. Moss recounts this bit of history:

Virginia was the hotbed of anti-Thanksgiving sentiment. In 1853, Governor Joseph Johnson declined to declare a day of Thanksgiving for his state, citing Thomas Jefferson's firm doctrine of separating church and state. Johnson's successor, the slave-owning fire-brand Henry A. Wise, was even more intransigent. In 1856, he received the same annual letter from Sarah Josepha Hale that every other governor did, encouraging him to declare a general day of Thanksgiving. Wise not only declined to make the proclamation, but fired back a testy refusal.

"This theatrical national claptrap of Thanksgiving," he declared, "has aided other causes in setting thousands of pulpits to preaching 'Christian politics' instead of humbly letting the carnal Kingdom alone and preaching singly Christ crucified." By "other causes," of course, he meant abolitionism.

That same year, the Richmond Whig elaborated the Southern case against Thanksgiving, excoriating the carnality of the holiday, which the editors felt should instead be spent in divine worship. In the District of Columbia, they noted, where all federal offices would be closed, "an astonishing quantity of execrable liquor will be guzzled" and the holiday would be "little more than an occasion for indulgence in dissipation at the cost of character."
As Moss notes:

Other commentators noted that the South already had a holiday of feasting and celebration late in the calendar year: Christmas. In New England, which inherited a legacy of Puritan dogma that considered Christmas a secular abomination, Christmas was not observed as a celebratory occasion until the 1870s. To Southern eyes, a day of feasting in late November was redundant and a loss of a day's income for its workers and merchants.
Southerners had been more receptive to Christianity as a festival involving revels, so the extra decadence of two reveling holidays close to each other could easily have seemed excessive.

DeVega comments on the reveling aspects of today's American Thanksgiving:

In many ways, Thanksgiving is a celebration of gluttony, sports, nationalism, militarism and waste. While some of the poor and homeless may be fed for a day, the institutions and structures that create income inequality and joblessness remain untouched. The day after Thanksgiving is called “Black Friday.” It is a festival of consumerist excess and greed. It is one of many moments throughout their lives when the American people are told the lie that “freedom,” “capitalism” and “democracy” are interchangeable. In reality, the gangster and casino capitalism of late 20th and early 20th century America is incompatible with a true “We the People” democracy.
DeVega writes more in the piece about the political implications of Thanksgiving. Also in Salon, Digby takes note of a development this year that makes me wonder if the Republicans may be starting to politicize Thanksgiving the way they have politicized Christmas for over a decade now, The conservative freakout over Thanksgiving debates: Here’s why the right is melting down this time 11/26/2015.

It's another way of recognizing that national celebrations inevitably involve some kind of political implications.

It's part of the reason why I'm leery of conceding national symbols to the right. Many of them, like Thanksgiving (which I suppose counts as a symbol as well as a celebration), have a democratic as well as a regressive aspect. Memorial Day can be used to remember the horrors of war and the real sacrifices of war veterans. It can also be used as a celebration of war and militarism. It's inevitable that some people will take it the latter way. And officials of both American political parties tend to recognize it in a way that does little to discourage the latter perspective.

But making these judgments are also a matter of history and values. With a big imagination, we could probably twist some positive symbolism out of the Confederate battle flag. But it's origin as a symbol of treason and its later use by white supremacists and a symbol of white racism and resistance to the democratic principles of the civil rights movement have identified it a major symbol of white racism, violence and suppression, hostility to democracy and treason to the United States. History matters in thinking about these things.

No comments: