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The gravy of Thanksgiving: Promise

By Denebola
Published: November 2008

By Pilar Quezzaire

When I was asked to write about Thanksgiving, I admit I was gripped with a touch of dread. From a historical point of view, Thanksgiving is a complex holiday, with a spotty history flavored by exploitation, political maneuvering and rampant commercialism.

It is difficult to characterize Thanksgiving as anything particularly good, especially since so many people these days feel they have little to be thankful for. This article is only a partial rebuttal to those claims. I argue strongly that Thanksgiving is one of the most potent reflections of our country, and that its promise is what at this point keeps the tradition alive for so many of us.

The first Thanksgiving ceremony held in the United States was not at Plymouth in 1621, but in what is now St. Augustine, Florida, on September 8, 1565. 600 Spanish settlers held a “Thanksgiving Mass, a common practice amongst Catholics at the time. The idea was co-opted by the English settlers of Jamestown and Plymouth (the Puritans of Massachusetts Bay rejected the practice as decadent). All of these ceremonies were informal gatherings that celebrated survival– but not necessarily success.

The first European settlements in America had rather low survival rates; for example, the Pilgrims of Plymouth were thankful that only half of their population had died the winter before their first “thanksgiving. Ninety percent of Jamestown’s population died in its first winter, so you can imagine how empowering a simple meal might have been to the few survivors who remained.

In the case of the Spanish, most left the St. Augustine area for more gold-rich territories further south; their Thanksgiving Mass celebrated the fact that they survived the arduous trip across the Atlantic Ocean. The first Thanksgivings were undoubtedly religious celebrations, with only the Pilgrims celebrating with the Wampanoag to encourage cultural cooperation.

Since those difficult first years, the United States with few exceptions has met with considerable success. The practice of Thanksgiving faded to local festivals and family gatherings until the Civil War, when Abraham Lincoln issued a “Thanksgiving Proclamation in the hopes of unifying a country torn apart by war and ideology. Lincoln set Thanksgiving’s date for the last Thursday in November, and subsequent Presidents followed the tradition, so that Thanksgiving became a political holiday emplaced by the executive branch.

In 1939, Franklin D. Roosevelt wielded his political power when he issued a Proclamation for the fourth Thursday in November instead of the last in order to lengthen the Christmas shopping season that officially started the day after Thanksgiving. The United States was in the midst of the Great Depression, so Roosevelt decided to give struggling shopkeepers a boost.

Only about half the country agreed with President Roosevelt, however, and for two years, the country was embroiled in a struggle over when Thanksgiving should be held. In 1941, the U.S. Congress issued a law that Thanksgiving would be held on the fourth Thursday in November. That day made Thanksgiving into a consumer holiday, the kickoff of the Christmas shopping season.

The trajectory of Thanksgiving follows the trajectory of the country, and at each turn, many people and many meanings are lost. Catholics were erased from the history of Thanksgiving early, as the American colonies were skewed heavily towards Protestants; Native Americans who celebrated with the Pilgrims as a gesture of goodwill found themselves shunted to the side upon European success; slaves and their descendants have yet to benefit fully from the gesture of unity Abraham Lincoln provided for the country in his Proclamation. Commercialism scored a victory after the short struggle during the Roosevelt administration, yet today there are many Americans who, by virtue of their economic standing or political beliefs, are excluded from this aspect of Thanksgiving as well.

Despite all of this, at every traumatic moment in our history, we have been asked to turn to Thanksgiving to reflect on our good fortune past, present, and future, and to come together as families and friends to celebrate the gifts of this land. Most of us have answered, and that is the promise of Thanksgiving. Americans one way or another are able to give thanks in their own ways and with their own traumas in mind, even if so often in our daily lives we fail to do so.

Thanksgiving is malleable, conforming to our ever-changing beliefs and concerns. As we reclaim the history of Thanksgiving (the result of revisions of our history that include the country’s multiple voices and considerable talents) we can also realize that Thanksgiving is as much a gesture of gratitude as it is a promise’€the promise’€of what our country is capable of, and a reflection of just how far we have come.

Perhaps the next turn in our society will again shift Thanksgiving’s meaning towards the attitude of those firsts colonists, who realized that the gift of being alive is the greatest of all. For with life comes the promise of something greater.

If not¦there’s always football.

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