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A Place in the Present Where History Meets Fiction

THANKSGIVING: The American Holiday

Thanksgiving: the most American of holidays and the one with the longest history.
Start with the Pilgrims. When I was researching Cape Cod, a historian at Plimoth Plantation, the Pilgrims living museum, told me, “ The difference between the Pilgrims and us: they had all the big things figured out, starting with their place in the universe and their relationship to God. It was only the little things that bothered them, the day-to-day troubles of life and survival in a harsh world. In the modern world, we have all the little things figured out, but it’s the big things that vex us trouble.”
Those Pilgrims did not celebrate Christmas, of course. They considered it a heathen transgression on the memory of Christ. No… when they declared a holiday, they took the term literally: “holy day.”
But after their tiny colony had survived a year, they decided it was time to give thanks to Almighty God, even though only half of the original hundred who left England were still alive.
I wrote about it in Cape Cod:
“In the life of the bay, nothing was wasted. The men of Plymouth learned that lesson well in the first summer. Massasoit’s Indians taught them to use herring from the bay to richen the soil: plant one herring in every h ill of seed, then plant corns, beans, and squash together. The cornstalks grew tall from the herring, the beans twined around the corn, and the prickles on the squash vines grew out to protect them all from the rabbits.
Come autumn, when the oak leaves turned red and the salt marshes gold, they got in a harvest worthy of a great feast. For three days, they partook of the abundance God had given them, whilst offering hospitality to Massasoit and his men. They ate turkey and venison and looked toward a second winter with confidence as great as their faith.”
And well they should have, because today, more than ten percent of the American population, some thirty or forty million people, can trace their lineage back to the fifty who gathered to celebrate that first Thanksgiving.
Across the next century and a half, Thanksgiving was never an official holiday. Governors and ministers could proclaim days of thanks whenever they decided there was a need to express a bit of gratitude for the blessings of the Lord… a gentle rain after a drought, a whale stranding on a Cape Cod beach, or a victory in battle. Victories were always good reason to celebrate and give thanks. Victories over the Indians or over the British…
The Continental Congress declared a thanksgiving for December 19, 1777, after the victory of the northern army over the British at the Battle of Saratoga.
At the time, Washington’s troops were in Pennsylvania, marching to a place called Valley Forge.
As Joseph Plumb Martin, the famous diarist from a Connecticut regiment, wrote, “We feasted upon leg of nothing and no turnips.”
But the work they did in the years ahead would remind other Americans of their blessings and Thanksgiving would become an unofficial autumn holiday, though more often celebrated in the Northern states than the Southern.
Then, in September of 1863, a woman named Sarah Hale wrote a letter to Lincoln. She had been agitating for years in Godey’s Ladies Magazine for an official Thanksgiving holiday.
She told Lincoln he should declare a regular Thanksgiving and make it “a great Union festival.” Lincoln liked the idea. So October 3, 1863, he signed the Proclamation of Thanksgiving.
According to later reports, it was written by his Secretary of State, William Seward, who also signed it, and it reads a bit like a campaign document for an administration that is holding firm in wartime.
It reminds Americans that despite that war they are all engaged in, the people of the North have enjoyed, “bountiful harvests and healthful skies.” The depredations of war “have not arrested the plow, the shuttle, or the ship.” (The shuttle, of course, is an important component of the textile loom.) The farmers, the manufacturers, and the merchants are thriving… at least in the North.
So it was time to name the last Thursday of November date to give thanks for ”the gracious gifts of a generous God.”
And in the process, we should “lift up those we love.”
Now there was a fixed November date (which has since been moved to the fourth Thursday of the month, for Novembers like 2012, when there are five Thursdays).
A year later. The Federal troops had the Confederates besieged at Petersburg. The Yankee commissary distributed 120,000 turkeys to the camp cooks. The smell wafted across the battlefield to the starving rebels. The Southerners may have resented the bounty of the North, but they held their fire all day out of respect for this holiday. And in time, they, too, would have things to be thankful for.
So, today, feast with your family and friends, like the Pilgrims of old; keep your sense of humor, like Joseph Plumb Martin; show a bit of forbearance, like the starving Confederates. And most importantly, make sure you do or say something to lift up those you love, as Lincoln suggests. If you do, all the big things will probably figure themselves out, and the small ones will not bother you.

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