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Thanks for the Memories
From unexpected alliances to embarrassing ones, how Thanksgiving became
what it is today

By B.A.

The Thanksgiving holiday took life my first year in the restaurant business, when I was compelled to work on that day, and enjoyed a late-in-the-day meal with my fellow employees. Holiday meals at home had become squabble fests within the immediate family and among those gotta-visit relatives with whom we were compelled to share the day. The enforced family of the restaurant people had no such baggage, and we had a rip-roaring time.

This taught me to take a longer view of the ritual; to analyze what’s at stake and understand how easy it is to park one’s baggage and make an effort to get along with others. The fact that I’m incapable of practicing such good behavior should in no way invalidate the philosophy.

Perhaps Gov. William Bradford had a long view. It’s impossible to know at this juncture, nearly 400 years after the fact. You can look back to the Hebrew Feast of the Tabernacles or the Greeks’ harvest festival or even the Romans’ Cerelia, at which toasted flakes of corn were ritually anointed with milk. But for the source of the American bacchanalia, you need only go back to 1621 and the three-day feast in Plymouth, Mass.

Was there the sense of appeasing the masses, a sense that informed early Christmas revelry? Food- and drink-laden blowouts help relieve the tensions of the oppressed, and this was a crew that not only had to endure the oppression of British rule but also the dizzying set of restrictions that has made the word “Puritan” synonymous with blue-nosed humorlessness.

Since that fateful Pilgrim settlement was started the year before, Bradford’s people had endured all manner of privation: lack of supplies, loss of life, total dependence on Indians.

Things also weren’t all that sweet among the Indians. The Wampanoag tribe, which lived around Plymouth, had lost three-fourths of its people to new, settler-borne diseases; the survivors also were quarreling with the Narragansett tribe.

Contact between Pilgrims and Indians was facilitated by two former slaves: Squanto and Samoset, who had learned English and escaped their captors. Squanto helped the starving explorers learn to cultivate the unfamiliar soil, and by the autumn of 1621, the settlers were able to reap their first harvest. In October, Bradford sent out a quartet of hunters, and, according to eyewitness Edward Winslow, they “in one day killed as much fowl as . . . served the company almost a week. At which time, amongst other recreations, we exercised our arms, many of the Indians coming among us, and among the rest their greatest King Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted.”

Good relations persisted until 1675, and then the settlers spent the next 11 years wiping out the Wampanoag.

War is one thing, feasting another. It took another several decades before America’s let’s-party spirit was able to bust through the Puritan anti-fun strictures. Thanksgiving grew focused during the Revolutionary War, as each Continental Army success prompted a party. The Continental Congress called for a “day of solemn Thanksgiving and praise” after Burgoyne was whupped at Saratoga, a celebration that took place Dec. 18, 1777, and Congress went on to declare more such days for several years after the British surrendered in 1781.

In 1789, his first year as president, George Washington set the first official Thanksgiving. Adams and Madison followed suit, but thereafter it was up to the individual states to decide. It was Sarah Josepha Hale, editor of Godey’s Lady’s Book (the Cosmo of its day), whose agitations for a national day (she published a Thanksgiving issue each November beginning in 1846) persuaded President Lincoln to make a federal case out of it again. He established it as the last Thursday in November, a date briefly changed by F.D.R. in order to lengthen the Depression-era Christmas shopping season. Football was attached in the 1880s; the first Macy’s parade was in 1924. Add a turkey and some trimmings, and Thanksgiving as we know it was in place.

Feeding your family is a wonderfully enriching experience; feeding the hungry is an even better feeling. You can’t give thanks without giving of yourself. According to local and national sources, in terms of sheer hunger, this year promises to be the grimmest Thanksgiving yet.

It’s possible that the oppression of the masses has been completed. Bush & Co. have Halliburtonized not only Iraq but also the minds of the American people, building on decades of desensitization to persuade us that depression is merely muted happiness. Perhaps this was part of old Bradford’s long view, ensuring that the ruling aristocracy will maintain the wealth and the social upper hand.

I say we keep the holiday. I’ve spent too many years learning to make the whole family-entertaining thing work, and I swear I’m going to work in a food pantry some holiday soon. Meanwhile, we can celebrate the waning days of the worst government since the days of the Stamp Act, and herald the revolution that will occur at the polls some three weeks before next Thanksgiving.

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