Thanksgiving

Here it is the eve of the fourth Thursday of November: let the fabrications and prevarications respecting American history commence. Being inquisitive regarding the pestilential endeavors of the maniacal and delusional side of the political spectrum, I adventured over to politicususa.com, a Mephistophelian asylum quartering a league of veracity challenged and axiomatically insolvent ideologues. While perusing for intellectually stimulating scholarship, I happened upon an article by Hrafnkell Haraldsson titled A Happy Thanksgiving to You. When not filling the pages of politicsusa, Mr. Haraldsson is the proprietor of the blog A Heathens’ Day.

The article labored under the weight of out of context quotes and lexical three-card Monte with fragments of history impaired by vague and uncorroborated commentary regarding the origins of the American Thanksgiving.

Here, history must intrude on what we all think we know. According to James W. Baker, Senior Historian at Plimoth Plantation:

The reason that we have so many myths associated with Thanksgiving is that it is an invented tradition. It doesn’t originate in any one event. It is based on the New England puritan Thanksgiving, which is a religious Thanksgiving, and the traditional harvest celebrations of England and New England and maybe other ideas like commemorating the pilgrims. All of these have been gathered together and transformed into something different from the original parts. The author presumptuously used the above autonomous quote–which is devoid of context, attributed to James Baker, Senior Historian at Plimoth Plantation, to debilitate and estrange the event at Plymouth in November 1621 between the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag as the foundation of the American Thanksgiving.

The author presumptuously used the above autonomous quote–which is devoid of context, attributed to James Baker, Senior Historian at Plimoth Plantation, to debilitate and estrange the event at Plymouth in November 1621 between the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag as the foundation of the American Thanksgiving.

In contrast to the author’s declaration that “history must intrude on what we all think we know,” the quote by James Baker, which is not linked to a broader document for context, James Baker’s book Thanksgiving: The Biography of an American Holiday contradicts the quote used by the author and proclaims that the November of 1621 event at Plymouth between the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag was the conception of the American Thanksgiving. The meaning of the quote, in the broader context of Baker’s book, clarifies what happened at the first Thanksgiving and how the details of the Puritan Thanksgiving celebration noted in Edward Winslow’s letter dated 1621 was lost until the 1840s when a copy was found. The relevant quote from Baker’s book:

Despite disagreements over the details, such as whether the Pilgrims or the Wampanoag Indians deserve the greater honor for the event, or if turkey was on the original bill of fare, the universal consensus is that the mythical Plymouth event was the historical birth of the American Thanksgiving holiday.

This is our primary source of information on the event, in Mourt’s Relation, – A Relation or Journal of the Beginning and Proceedings of the English Plantation Settled at Plimoth in New England, London: 1622) by Edward Winslow and William Bradford:

Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after a special manner rejoice together, after we had gathered the fruits of our labors; they four in one day killed as much fowl, as with a little help beside, served the Company almost a week, at which time amongst other Recreations, we exercised our Arms, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and amongst the rest their greatest king Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five Deer, which they brought to the Plantation and bestowed on our Governor, and upon the Captain and others. And although it be not always so plentiful, as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so far from want, that we often wish you partakers of our plenty.

A Relation or Journal of the Beginning and Proceedings of the English Plantation Settled at Plimoth in New England, or as it is commonly known, Mourt’s Relation, is not the primary source. The truncated quote is from Edward Winslow’s letter dated December 12, 1621, which was published in Mourt’s Relation in full, and is the primary source:

Our corn did prove well, and God be praised, we had a good increase of Indian corn, and our barley indifferent good, but our peas not worth the gathering, for we feared they were too late sown. They came up very well, and blossomed, but the sun parched them in the blossom. Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after a special manner rejoice together after we had gathered the fruit of our labors. They four in one day killed as much fowl as, with a little help beside, served the company almost a week. At which time, amongst other recreations, we exercised our arms, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and among the rest their greatest king Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five deer, which they brought to the plantation and bestowed on our governor, and upon the captain and others. And although it be not always so plentiful as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so far from want that we often wish you partakers of our plenty.

As so often happens, time conflates events and in 1841, in reprinting Mourt’s Relation, Alexander Young misidentified the 1621 feast as the “first Thanksgiving, and in 1846, Sarah Josepha Hale repeated his mistake in a magazine she published. And here we are.

Much to the chagrin of the author and politicsusa, time did not conflate events and Alexander Young, an antiquarian, did not “reprint” Mourt’s Relation. Mourt’s Relation was republished by Young after being adrift in the ether for a couple of centuries in his Chronicles of the Pilgrims Fathers of the Colony of Plymouth from 1602 to 1625 in 1841 after a copy of the original was found in Philadelphia in the year 1820. Until the discovery in 1820, the prevailing remnant Mourt’s Relation was the Massachusetts Historical Society’s reprinting of Samuel Puchas’s Hakluytus Posthumus or Purchas His Pilgrimes of 1625. This adaptation of events did not include Winslow’s letter, thus the broader context of Baker’s quote. Young included a copy of the full text of Winslow’s letter dated December 12, 1621 in his book, which reintroduced the forgotten events of the first Thanksgiving. Young noted in his book the similarities of the practice of Thanksgiving in 1841 with Winslow’s description in 1621 of how the first Thanksgiving was celebrated. Young’s footnote to Winslow’s letter:

This was the first Thanksgiving, the harvest festival of New England. On this occasion they no doubt feasted on the wild turkey as well as venison.

Young presumably used Bradford’s Of Plymouth Plantation to corroborate the “wild turkey” at the feast.

They begane now to gather in the small harvest they had, and to fitte up their houses and dwellings against winter, being all well recovered in health and strenght, and had all things in good plenty; for as some were thus imployed in affairs abroad, others were excersised in fishing, aboute codd, and bass, and other fish, of which they tooke good store, of which every family had their portion. All the sommer ther was no wante. And now begane to come in store of foule, as winter aproached, of which this place did abound when they came first (but afterward decreased by degrees). And besids water foule, ther was great store of wild Turkies, of which they tooke many, besids venison, etc. Besids they had aboute a peck a meale a weeke to a person, or now since harvest, Indean coree tb that proportion. Which made many afterwards write so largly of their plenty hear to their freinds in England, which were not fained, but true reports.

The author offers a one-sentence statement regarding Sarah Josepha Hale, devoid of context or affirmation, and leaves the reader with this vague and unqualified statement regarding Sarah Josepha Hale: “Sarah Josepha Hale repeated this mistake in a magazine she published.”

The author borrowed a concept from H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine: “There is no difference between Time and any of the three dimensions of Space except that our consciousness moves along it.” Sarah Josepha Hale started her campaign to make Thanksgiving a national holiday in 1827. Hale did not have a copy of the events of the first Thanksgiving as there was not a copy of Winslow’s letter until Young’s Chronicles of the Pilgrims Fathers of the Colony of Plymouth from 1602 to 1625 in 1841. Barring mastering the space-time continuum, the author’s math is off by fourteen years, which illustrates the necessity of the absence of an explanation for the statement regarding Hale. If any single individual can be singled out for the existence of the national celebration of Thanksgiving as we know it, Sarah Josepha Hale is that individual.

Sarah Josepha Hale edited the magazine Godey’s Lady Book. Hale started a campaign to have Thanksgiving reinstated as a holiday as was the tradition of Washington, Adams, and Monroe. Hale started her campaign for Thanksgiving being nationally recognized holiday in 1827; she started petitioning U.S. presidents in 1849. Hale started with Zachary Taylor, and she continued with Millard Fillmore, Franklin Pierce, James Buchanan, and finally Abraham Lincoln. She also petitioned the governors of the states and territories. By the time Hale penned her letter to Lincoln, thirty states and two U.S. territories recognized Thanksgiving as a holiday. Hales’ persistence consummated with her letter to Lincoln in 1863 and Lincoln’s Thanksgiving proclamation of designating the last Thursday of November as a day of Thanksgiving: “…observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens,” which has been honored by every President since:

Philadelphia, Sept. 28th 1863.

Sir.—

Permit me, as Editress of the “Lady’s Book”, to request a few minutes of your precious time, while laying before you a subject of deep interest to myself and — as I trust — even to the President of our Republic, of some importance. This subject is to have the day of our annual Thanksgiving made a National and fixed Union Festival.
You may have observed that, for some years past, there has been an increasing interest felt in our land to have the Thanksgiving held on the same day, in all the States; it now needs National recognition and authoritive fixation, only, to become permanently, an American custom and institution.

Enclosed are three papers (being printed these are easily read) which will make the idea and its progress clear and show also the popularity of the plan. For the last fifteen years I have set forth this idea in the “Lady’s Book”, and placed the papers before the Governors of all the States and Territories — also I have sent these to our Ministers abroad, and our Missionaries to the heathen — and commanders in the Navy. From the recipients I have received, uniformly the most kind approval. Two of these letters, one from Governor (now General) Banks and one from Governor Morgan are enclosed; both gentlemen as you will see, have nobly aided to bring about the desired Thanksgiving Union. But I find there are obstacles not possible to be overcome without legislative aid — that each State should, by statute, make it obligatory on the Governor to appoint the last Thursday of November, annually, as Thanksgiving Day; — or, as this way would require years to be realized, it has occurred to me that a proclamation from the President of the United States would be the best, surest and most fitting method of National appointment.

I have written to my friend, Hon. Wm. H. Seward, and requested him to confer with President Lincoln on this subject. As the President of the United States has the power of appointments for the District of Columbia and the Territories; also for the Army and Navy and all American citizens abroad who claim protection from the U. S. Flag — could he not, with right as well as duty, issue his proclamation for a Day of National Thanksgiving for all the above classes of persons? And would it not be fitting and patriotic for him to appeal to the Governors of all the States, inviting and commending these to unite in issuing proclamations for the last Thursday in November as the Day of Thanksgiving for the people of each State? Thus the great Union Festival of America would be established.

Now the purpose of this letter is to entreat President Lincoln to put forth his Proclamation, appointing the last Thursday in November (which falls this year on the 26th) as the National Thanksgiving for all those classes of people who are under the National Government particularly, and commending this Union Thanksgiving to each State Executive: thus, by the noble example and action of the President of the United States, the permanency and unity of our Great American Festival of Thanksgiving would be forever secured. An immediate proclamation would be necessary, so as to reach all the States in season for State appointments, also to anticipate the early appointments by Governors.

Excuse the liberty I have taken

With profound respect Yrs truly Sarah Josepha Hale,

Editress of the “Ladys Book”

Perhaps the author was referring to this editorial written by Hale in November of 1865 in Godey’s Lady Book, which was not only forty years after Hale started her campaign, but Hale’s campaign preceded the republishing of Winslow’s letter by fourteen years, and Hale’s editorial is true to the history regarding the beginning of the American Thanksgiving custom and holiday:

Hitherto the observance of the day has been circumscribed. To the Eastern colonies we must look for the beginning of this custom. The Pilgrim Fathers incorporated a yearly Thanksgiving day among the moral influences they sent over the New World. After our Independence the light crept slowly onward and westward… yet still it blessed and beautified the homes it reached, thus suggesting its shine out together and make joy and thanksgiving throughout United America. It would be like a new revelation of dayspring from on high. And now the time and day are come.

Thus our own ideal of AMERICAN THANKSGIVING FESTIVAL will be realized, as we described it in 1860. The 30th of November 1865, will bring the consummation. ‘On that DAY our citizens, whether in their own pleasant homes, or in the distant regions of Oriental despotism, will observe it – on board every ship where our flag floats there will be a day of gladness . . . and in our Great Republic, from the St. John’s to the Rio Grande, from the Atlantic to the Pacific, all our people, as one Brotherhood, will rejoice together, and give thanks to God for our National, State and Family blessings.

These weren’t our Thanksgivings. It was Franklin Delano Roosevelt who, in 1939 and at the behest of the National Retail Dry Goods Association, made Thanksgiving an official holiday on the fourth Thursday of November of every year. Ironically, capitalist Republicans hated the idea and called it “Franksgiving” (coined by Atlantic City mayor Thomas D. Taggart, Jr.).

The author seems to have an antagonistic relationship with twentieth-century history as well.
Franklin Roosevelt did not make Thanksgiving an official holiday on the fourth Thursday of November. In 1939, the last Thursday of November fell on the last day of the month, which shortened the shopping season. Roosevelt issued a Presidential Proclamation moving Thanksgiving to the second to last Thursday in November. The following year, the next to last Thursday in November fell on the third Thursday of November, thus making Thanksgiving on the third Thursday in 1940. The move met with exuberant resistance as sixteen states refused to acknowledge Roosevelt’s decree and continued to celebrate the last Thursday of November as had been the custom since Lincoln. The move caused chaos with calendars, scheduled school days, planned vacations, and scheduled sporting events such as football games. All of which were forced to be rescheduled in the states that recognized Roosevelt’s Thanksgiving.

Roosevelt’s volte-face regarding Thanksgiving was such an unmitigated disaster that Roosevelt urged Congress revert the holiday back to the original date created by Lincoln.

After two years of confusion and and wandering the Thanksgiving wilderness, on October 6, 1941, the House of Representatives pass a joint resolution moving Thanksgiving back to the last Thursday in November. The Senate amended the resolution to the fourth Thursday in November. The two houses agreed, and Roosevelt signed the bill into law on December 26, 1941.

So today we have an official holiday melded onto a misremembered event from two centuries before and a religious festival conflated with a harvest festival. Both, ultimately, driven by capitalism.

So today, as happens each year around the fourth Thursday of November, there are myriad articles bandied about pregnant with misrepresentations and distortions of American history attempting to incite the aberration of the American Thanksgiving holiday.

What is the point of a liberal fantasy regarding American history without a denouement attacking capitalism? If the author knew American history, he would be keenly aware of Governor Bradford’s implementation of the socialist system of “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need” that played out like a precursor to Karl Marx’ Critique of the Gotha Program. After nearly starving to death under the “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need” system, Bradford made a hasty retreat to capitalism for the sake of survival.

 

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