Historians are great fun at holiday gatherings. There is no hallowed, sentimental tradition we can’t contextualize the fun out of, and what better time than lingering over the gravy and cranberry sauce with people you only see once or twice a year? But I jest, at least for myself. The Pilgrims, Mayflower, et al have never ever come up at any of our family Thanksgivings, and indeed I strive to avoid history or politics as conversation topics on that occasion. Obviously the whole thing weighs on the minds of many of my colleagues, however, as well as the editors who commission essays from them. Below are a just a few I found over the weekend. I agree with almost all of them, by the way.
- As Randall Stephens pointed out in a 2009 Historical Society post, the Pilgrims/friendly Indians story is actually one of the most long-debunked in American history. Mark Twain sent it up. The head of the New England Emigrant Aid Society trashed it. Historians have been pointing out for years that the Plymouth colony turned to violence shortly after their turkey was digested, so Peter Mancall of USC uses that as just a starting point for a discussion of the maypole-dancing Merrymount colony led by Thomas Morton. Mancall argues that Morton’s settlement offered a more truly peaceful and less Christian alternative model of coexistence with the natives. (Some may remember Merrymount and the maypole from the Nathaniel Hawthorne story notable for its proto-hip theme of a groovy American Eden disrupted by angry, violent European bluenoses.) Morton also apparently wrote the very first Pilgrim-debunking book as well, earning him extra cred with historians. Next November confuse your grade-schooler’s teacher by requesting a maypole dance to go along with the Pilgrim hats.
- Yale University Press asks us to consider what the Pilgrims must have smelled like. Hint: not like the sage in their stuffing or delicious pumpkin pie.
- Raymond J. Haberski, Jr. at the US Intellectual History blog records destroying his daughter’s grade school dreams:
My first-grader asked me about the Pilgrims yesterday after having seen a movie in school about a mouse who stows away aboard the Mayflower. She liked the mouse, didn’t know what she thought about the Pilgrims, but was curious about the Compact made aboard the Mayflower. She said that she would like to see the original document (which made my heart leap) to check if the mouse’s prints were on it (my heart sank). So I told her that the mouse was fiction, the compact was not. I then wondered why we need to include mice in historical stories, why not just make either a movie about a mouse or a movie about the Mayflower.
The daughter then retaliates on behalf of the mouse by hammering the Pilgrims on gender.
- While not in so many words, Steven Cromack at the Historical Society Blog reminds us that Thanksgiving is an invented tradition, cooked up by women’s magazine editor (and actual cookbook author) Sara Josepha Hale as a way of bringing the whole Union together through a “new National Holiday” on the eve of the Civil War. Once the South was out of the Union, President Lincoln finally declared Hale’s new holiday for the last Thursday in November. So the togetherness thing clearly worked out really well. Thanksgiving and the Plymouth narrative that went with it were always about installing a soothing version of New England Puritanism as the national founding mythology, over and against other stories and lineages (like Virginia’s) that were both quite distinct and perhaps more truly foundational in terms of what the nation would become. It took decades of New England propaganda to really establish Thanksgiving as a non-sectional icon, and I wonder if football was not only thing that ever really reconciled southerners to it.
- Cromack mentions that the modern Thanksgiving was not finally legislated until 1941. Researching that for 10 minutes leads to the conclusion that Tea Party types should totally boycott the holiday and report to work next Thanksgiving in protest. Not only was the Thanksgiving holiday a worker-coddling Big Government mandate, it was also necessitated by FDR’s earlier attempt to change the date of Thankgiving. The FDR Library has the hate mail to prove it.
- Probably the ultimate buzzkill here is that, far from Black Friday’s being a perversion of Thanksgiving tradition, it turns out that the holiday qua holiday (a time officially set aide for family gatherings and not going to work) was always about shopping. Moving the date around the calendar was motivated by requests from businessmen who wondered how they were going to sell their way out of the Great Depression with only 24 shopping days until Christmas. It seems that business had lobbied to move the former informal Thanksgiving to an earlier date during FDR’s first year in office, because the last Thursday fell on November 30 in 1933 — the idea was that since no one would start Christmas shopping until after Thanksgiving, move it up and they would shop more. It must say something about the depth of denial that much of the business world was in at the time that it could be believed that switching some dates on the calendar could fool the public into overlooking the little matter of world-wide economic collapse. Roosevelt ignored the calls the first time, but when Thanksgiving landed on November 30 again in 1939, he caved in and moved the annual Thanksgiving proclamation a week earlier. The New Deal was in retreat at the time and FDR wanted to seem friendlier to business. This experiment in more sensitive governance resulted in the avalanche of anti-government, pro-tradition outrage documented on the FDR Library’s page. The missive on the dire threat to the calendar industry must have inspired some Bolshevistic thoughts in the White House.
- For my own contribution, watch this space for evidence that the holiday celebrations of the Pilgrims got started in New England as conservative politics. Federalists held the first of a series of “Feasts of the Sons of the Pilgrims” in 1799, when the Alien and Sedition Acts were in full swing, to urge the loyal children of “the Fathers of New England” to hold the line against immigrants, liberals, and Frenchmen. Unlike the sanitized Sara Josepha Hale version, the Plymouth story of 1799 included a fairly accurate and unapologetic account of what the Pilgrims did to unfriendly Indians and the limits of their acceptance of even the friendly ones: ”The memory of our Ancestors—May their ardour inspire and their success encourage their descendants to maintain their birthrights and may all their enemies be converted like Massasoit, or suffer like Phillip” (i.e. “King” Philip, the Wampanoag chief whose head ended on a post in Plymouth).
- To include the equally fun anthropologists, check out Magnus Fiskesjö’s deconstruction — or more properly, construction — of the odious modern tradition of the Presidential Turkey Pardon: “The reluctant sovereign: New adventures of the US presidential Thanksgiving turkey.” If anything, Fiskesjö is far too respectful. The power of life and death is sooo cute.
- Finally, moving away from the Thanksgiving story to typical Thanksgiving activities, the redoubtable Jesse Lemisch gave me permission to quote his Facebook post about trying to watch television this weekend: “It disgusts me that I turn the TV on to watch what passes for news, and instead what’s on is huge lunks in uniforms trying to kill each other. The mindset of football is the mindset of the pepper-spraying cop.” I (almost) wish I had said that while watching the annual Thanksgiving Day Lions game before dinner at my aunt and uncle’s house on Thursday. Alas, I am not as tough as Jesse!