Universal Translator

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Thanksgiving: Truly the Most American of Holidays

After the 9/11 attacks, George W. Bush infamously urged Americans to respond by going to Disney World, keep shopping, and not to pay too much attention to his plans to plunge us into an unnecessary and ill-founded war with Iraq.  He’s gotten a lot of flack for that over the years, but – as the national holiday we celebrate today makes clear – America has always been a warlike and commercial nation, and slaughter and shopping have been our traditional pastimes.

One of my favorite brief sketches of the evolution of Thanksgiving, strictly for its contrariness, can be found here:

Until approximately 1629, there were only about 300 Puritans living in widely scattered settlements around New England. As word leaked back to England about their peaceful and prosperous life, more Puritans arrived by the boatloads. As the numbers of Puritans grew, the question of ownership of the land became a major issue.
In 1641, the Dutch governor of Manhattan offered the first scalp bounty; a common practice in many European countries.  This was broadened by the Puritans to include a bounty for Natives fit to be sold for slavery. The Dutch and Puritans joined forces to exterminate all Natives from New England, and village after village fell. Following an especially successful raid against the Pequot in what is now Stamford, Connecticut, the churches of Manhattan announced a day of “thanksgiving" to celebrate victory over the heathen savages. This was the 2nd Thanksgiving. During the feasting, the hacked off heads of Natives were kicked through the streets of Manhattan like soccer balls.

The killing took on a frenzy, with days of thanksgiving being held after each successful massacre. Even the friendly Wampanoag did not escape. Their chief was beheaded, and his head placed on a pole in Plymouth, Massachusetts -- where it remained for 24 years. Each town held thanksgiving days to celebrate their own victories over the Natives until it became clear that there needed to be an order to these special occasions.
(emphasis added)
So, yeah . . . except for the very first Thanksgiving celebrated by the Puritans and the Wampanoag in 1621, the holiday itself actually involved “giving thanks” for having slaughtered villages of Native Americans.  This is how Thanksgiving evolved from a commemoration of our “warlike” nature.

And what about the commemoration of our “commercial” nature?  Well, that has to do with the day on which we celebrate Thanksgiving.

Remember . . . by tradition the various states celebrated “thanksgiving” on different days.  It wasn’t until 1863 when – by the proclamation of President Abraham Lincoln – it was determined that Thanksgiving would be celebrated uniformly and as a national holiday on the last Thursday of November.

And that worked out okay until November 1939, which contained five Thursdays – the last of which fell on November 30th.  The problem with this was that – back then, at least – Americans didn’t begin their Christmas shopping until after Thanksgiving.  But in 1939 the country still hadn’t recovered from FDR’s ill-advised attempt to rein in government spending two years before  and we still were caught up in the aftereffects of the Depression. 

So Roosevelt issued a new proclamation, moving Thanksgiving up by one week in order to get a bigger economic boost from an additional week’s worth of Christmas shopping.  However, fully 16 states refused to accept the change and so for the next two years the different states celebrated “Thanksgiving” on different days.  Eventually, in 1941 the House of Representatives declared Thanksgiving to be the last Thursday in November, but the Senate reminded the House that shopping was on the line and amended the resolution to establish Thanksgiving as the fourth Thursday in November.  This amended resolution was finally signed into law by FDR on December 26, 1941.

And so there you have it:  while most people think Black Friday – traditionally, the beginning of our holiday shopping -- depends on when Thanksgiving is, the truth is Thanksgiving depends on when we want to start our shopping.  An entire national holiday established solely because we want to make sure we get to spend enough time at the mall.

Truly, Thanksgiving is the most American of holidays. 

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