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Thanksgiving: the most American of holidays

Essay by Martha Quillen

Holidays – November 1999 – Colorado Central Magazine

WHEN YOU THINK ABOUT IT, there’s something very odd about Thanksgiving. Even though Americans celebrate several holidays brought over from Europe, like Christmas and New Years, Thanksgiving is the oldest public holiday declared in the United States. Yet Thanksgiving has changed very little over the years.

For 377 autumns now, Americans have been eating turkey and pumpkin pie to commemorate the harvest, and this year we’ll do it again.

We have, of course, added televised football to the festivities. But one suspects that even the residents of Plymouth Colony — as dour as they are purported to have been — must have turned to some sort of sport to pass the time.

And, of course, Thanksgiving is now followed by the biggest shopping weekend ever devised by a nation of compulsive shoppers. But all of that shopping is in deference to Christmas, not Thanksgiving.

So all in all, Thanksgiving has remained a simple feast day commemorating the harvest, and that in itself makes it a very strange American holiday.

In the United States, it has long been customary to fret about how we are corrupting our most cherished traditions. Or to put it more simply: it is fairly traditional in America to gripe about mucking up our traditions.

And why not?

Modern Americans, after all, seem convinced that Memorial Day was made for picnics and Presidents’ Day for white sales.

Furthermore, in September — after we heard three different news commentators incorrectly refer to Labor Day as the last day of summer — we concluded that the traditional observation of that holiday was irretrievably lost. Now, Labor Day clearly commemorates the last summer respite before kids must knuckle under and crack the books (which upon reflection, we’ll concede still makes it Labor Day, although it commemorates a wholly different sort of labor than it was intended to observe).

Griping about what’s become of Labor Day, however, is probably futile since it seems to be in the nature of holidays to change — just as it seems to be in the nature of Americans to lament such changes.

Long ago — during an era when many of the actual combatants still personally remembered that most famous Fourth of July in 1776 — Thomas Jefferson started complaining that Americans had lost the spirit of the revolution. And Americans have been complaining about such things ever since (even though it seems unlikely that most Americans would want to commemorate Independence Day with another revolution as Jefferson recommended).

Quite obviously, as time goes by, people tend to remember holidays but forget the reasons behind them, and traditionally Americans regret that. But they complain even more vociferously about the commercialization of their cherished traditions.

Who hasn’t heard it bemoaned that Christmas has been turned into a two-month merchandising extravaganza?

And it’s true. These days, Christmas seems more focused upon marketing than any medieval trade fair.

And in much the same way, many, many decades ago, Easter was usurped as a confectioner’s holiday — good for selling not only marshmallow candies and chocolate bunnies but also excellent for selling frivolous hats.

Unfortunately for milliners, though, in recent years, Easter seems to have evolved beyond a bonnet-selling observance. That doesn’t mean that Easter is once again a sacrosanct religious holiday, though.

No, now it’s been appropriated as a Spring Break Tourism festival. And that seems to be the way it goes — whether we like it or not. In the long run, it appears that holidays are as vulnerable to the ravages of time as castles in the sand.

But on the other hand, Americans aren’t always thrilled when cherished traditions are maintained, either. Indeed, many Americans spurn Halloween precisely because it has successfully preserved ancient Celtic customs. They feel it’s unseemly to observe pagan rituals, and All Hallow’s Day was undoubtedly a Christian adaptation of Samain (also spelled Samhain) — a Celtic harvest festival dedicated to some sort of sun god.

BUT THAT HOLIDAY has definitely changed. First off, the Celtic priests, being connoisseurs of mysticism and magic, practiced some kind of taboo about recording their religious studies — even after they learned to keep records in Greek. So today we have only Roman accounts upon which to reconstruct the entire pantheon of Celtic gods, and Romans had their own unique way of viewing Gaelic religion.

If art and sculpture are any indication, the Celts worshipped some three to four hundred deities, but according to Julius Caesar their principal deity was Mercury. Thus, modern Americans can’t really be sure what the Celts believed in.

Today, we celebrate Halloween at the same time of year the Celts honored the end of summer, and we’ve even preserved some of their apparent view that it was a sinister time fraught with danger. We also carve up pumpkins (rather than turnips as did the Irish) — and we refer to them by the seventeenth century term for a night watchman, a Jack of the Lantern. Or perhaps we call them Jack-o-lanterns because it was a popular 17th century term for an ignis fatuus or foolish light which was the way people described the strange luminescence created by swamp gases.

Some people believed that such lights lured the unsuspecting into danger. But on the other hand, even in the 1600s the word Jack-o-lantern was associated with the prankish or mischievous behavior of boys. So at this point in time, it’s difficult to know exactly what All Hallow’s Eve meant to Elizabethans, let alone Celts.

But whatever our ancestors believed, the meaning behind their magic has long been lost. Let’s face it, modern Halloween parties just don’t pay proper reference to those gods of yesteryear.

Today, people really don’t expect a grinning vegetable to protect them from the spirits of the dead, and if they’re worried about fertility, it’s unlikely they’ll dance around a maypole. For the most part, Celtic traditions — whatever they once meant — have been lost, and our modern Halloween has transformed that old Celtic holiday into a rather jocular, self-mocking commemoration of our age-old fear of things that go bump in the night.

SO WHY HASN’T THANKSGIVING changed more? Why, after almost 400 years, haven’t we managed to make Thanksgiving into a more effective marketing tool? Why hasn’t it become synonymous with some kind of clothing? Why didn’t the beef industry ever wrangle it in and claim it as its own?

Well, we’re not sure. But maybe Thanksgiving survives because it was actually the most masterful marketing strategy ever devised.

In 1620, the pilgrims set sail for Virginia with two ships, the Mayflower and the Speedwell. Then the Speedwell proved unseaworthy and was twice returned to port, and finally the Mayflower set forth a month later with many of the Speedwell’s passengers and supplies aboard.

High seas, however, drove the colonists off course, landing them on Cape Cod in late November — rather than in Virginia. So a scouting party was sent out to find a suitable settling place, and thus, the 102 colonists aboard the Mayflower didn’t arrive at Plymouth until after Christmas.

Unable to build a colony in the dead of winter, those beleaguered colonists were forced to live aboard the Mayflower — where 47 of them died before spring. Finally, though, the pilgrims got a break when an Indian walked into their camp crying, “Much welcome, Englishmen. Much welcome.”

And as it turns out, the Englishmen were welcome. But that was primarily because a plague had recently wiped out more than 90,000 natives along America’s northeastern coast, leaving only about 5,000 survivors in the entire region. Thus, the Indians needed the Englishmen almost as much as the Englishmen needed the Indians. So together they celebrated the first Thanksgiving.

IT WAS A HOLIDAY born of desperation, and celebrated by people who had very little to be thankful for. But strangely enough, it worked. For a time, the Indians and the Englishmen set aside their differences, and the Plymouth Colony thrived.

(But make no mistake, the Indians and the Europeans already did have differences. In all probability earlier Europeans had brought over the plague that devastated the northeastern tribes. And in addition, the Indian who eventually taught the pilgrims what they needed to know to survive in the New World had actually learned their language in England — where he had ended up after being taken in slavery to Spain.)

Perhaps with that lesson of the Plymouth Colony in mind, Abraham Lincoln proclaimed Thanksgiving a national holiday in 1863 — right in the midst of a civil war when nobody was even sure whether there would be a country left to celebrate the event by year’s end.

Curiously, though, Thanksgiving probably couldn’t have been introduced as a national holiday at any other time.

Imagine if tomorrow congress proposed that Americans all celebrate a new holiday upon which everyone would express gratitude for all the wonderful things they have. Surely we’d all demand to know just exactly what it was congress expected us to be grateful for.

Right here and right now in Central Colorado, however, we do have much to be grateful for. We have a wealth of beautiful scenery, a bounty of open space, a prosperous economy, a functional communication system and adequate roads.

Yet we grumble about development, and about how jobs here don’t pay as much as jobs elsewhere, and about how real estate prices are spiraling up while wages aren’t.

— And that strikes us as the very best thing about Thanksgiving. It’s still around to be resurrected in the event of plague or pestilence. But in our era, it survives merely as an anemic, vaguely pleasant, little holiday observed by people who don’t tend to be all that grateful about much of anything at all.

And that seems only natural, since only the malnourished are grateful for crumbs.

Right now, though, we’re not desperate, nor hungry, nor all stuck in the same rocking boat, and thus we expect more — because it actually looks like we might have the wherewithal to get it.

So this year, we’d like to express a special thanks for our ingratitude and to impart our fervent hope that all of us can continue to enjoy it. –Martha Quillen