Few days are as conspicuous and as significant in the liturgical calendar of the American civil religion than Thanksgiving. The language and rituals of the holiday are unmistakably religious in nature; a mythic origin story, a call for supplication and gratitude, the breaking of bread (or carving of turkey) with family both chosen and not.
As religious (or “religious”) as the form of Thanksgiving is, the holiday is also estimably secular, a readymade day of observance in part designed to incorporate pluralistic understandings of what it means to be an American. That’s purposeful; for supposedly being about New England Puritans and their (semi) apocryphal meal with local Indians, Thanksgiving only became a national holiday following the Civil War.
Central to the day are less events that happened in the 17th century than the ever-regenerative work of constructing what exactly it means to be an American. Like anything religious at its core, Thanksgiving invites skepticism as well as orthodoxy, yet that’s always been intrinsic to what makes the holiday, and the country which it embodies, so fascinating, as these pieces spanning a decade of Religion Dispatches can attest to.
Religious or secular? Puritan or pluralistic? Insular or expansive? Bruce David Forbes investigates the contradictions that lay behind the cranberry sauce; the paradoxes beyond the pumpkin pie.
Surprisingly, all of the decades-long Thanksgiving advocacy prior to Lincoln’s proclamation never included any mention of the 1621 Pilgrim and Indian story, the basis of so many Thanksgiving pageants in the 1900s. The holiday came first, and the mythic 1621 event became a focus only later.
Returning to the mythic conventions behind Thanksgiving—including the narrative which casts the pilgrims’ journey to America as an Exodus story that enacts the promises of religious freedom—I ask what role the holiday could still have in a nation increasingly defined by nationalist and authoritarian madness. As divisive and intolerant as the actual pilgrims were, I suggest that the broader themes of the day still contain the seeds of liberation.
At its core this is really a debate about the interpretive significance of the mythic story of America’s foundation. The conservative reads a tale about Anglo-American Protestant hegemony and the opening up of North American resources. But the radical, perhaps even the mystical interpreter, reads a more allegorically profound story about America as “Mother of Exiles,” a universal space that encompases all ethnicities, cultures, and religions precisely because of its universality.
Melissa Borja illuminates a Thanksgiving dinner held in 1979 when prominent Jewish leader Rabbi Bernard Mandelbaum and Notre Dame University president Father Theodore Hesburgh joined President Jimmy Carter in an event meant to raise awareness of the plight of Cambodian and Vietnamese refugees. Following the United States’ disastrous wars in Southeast Asia, the humble dinner was meant to return to certain values shared by both the promise of the holiday, but also the ethic of care exemplified in Judaism, Catholicism, and Protestantism.
The cooperation between religious communities and government—so vividly on display in the fall of 1979—has broken down. Refugee resettlement has emerged as a starkly partisan issue, and government leaders at all levels have forcefully opposed resettling Syrian refugees.
Part of the creative ferment of Thanksgiving, as an invented and endlessly malleable holiday, are the ways in which America’s diversity of cultures and religions can repurpose the holiday. Jodi Eichler-Levine writes about the congruences of Judaism and Thanksgiving when the holiday happened to coincide with Hanukkah in 2013, the last time that’s on the schedule for 78,000 years.
One USA Today headline phrased it perfectly: “Thanksgivukkah stirs thanks, angst.” As a scholar of religions, I see Thanksgivukkah as a phenomenon to unpack, not to judge. As a Jewish American, I am seduced by the joys and kitsch of this once-in-a-life time event … but it’s still not the Christmas tree I longed for as a child.
America has always been an enigma, a paradox. The nation that held disestablishment of an official religion as one of its most sacred dictates, and which could still speak of political concepts as being “sacred dictates.” Louis A. Ruprecht goes to the source of much contemporary thinking about this enigma, the steadfastly secular nation that has the soul of a church, when he writes about Robert Bellah, the sociologist who coined the term “American civil religion.” In Thanksgiving, even more than holidays like Independence Day, we have the High Holy Days of the American experiment.
[Thanksgiving] lies at the very junctures Bellah outlined in his influential essay. While the Thanksgiving Day newspaper is full of flyers encouraging the Christmas commercialism that begins tomorrow, this holiday is precious to many US citizens precisely for it simplicity and sometimes elegance. It is a day devoted to quiet pleasure, good food, good drink, family and friends. It is decidedly uncommercial, and refreshingly low-key.
For all of the hagiographical dimensions to the Thanksgiving story, the Pollyannaish story about black-clad religious freedom seekers, there is another, opposite tendency that reduces them to prigs and scolds. In such a view the Puritans are erased of their complexity, their subtly, their nuance. Joanna Brooks reminds us that the Puritans were complicated, and that their disagreements amongst themselves were as combustible as the nation that would claim inspiration from them. In the person of the great antinomian Anne Hutchinson, Brooks identifies a figure for an alternative Thanksgiving, open not to myths but to challenging them.
When I saw the Dinner Party, I was dismayed to find that the place [Judy] Chicago set for Hutchinson was designed in colors of grief and mourning, sadness and loss. No doubt, her life was not easy, but I prefer to remember Hutchinson—and others like her—as women who refused to surrender the freedoms of mind and spirit they found through their faith, no matter how the human institutions of religion closed in on them.
Reactionaries decry that activists have come for Confederate statues and for Columbus Day, but for the most part Thanksgiving seems to remain untouched. A cynic might note that neither of those aforementioned observances is associated with turkey and football, but whatever the reasons for why Thanksgiving endures while Columbus Day is (rightly) challenged, Indian militant Johnny P. Flynn [a loss RD still mourns] asks us to maybe look a bit closer at the last Thursday in November. If Columbus Day uncomplicatedly celebrates genocide and ethnic cleansing, then an honest accounting must consider the ways in which Thanksgiving similarly countenances such things, even while the myths of the day pretend otherwise.
We know that when the passengers on the Mayflower landed in November of 1620, the first thing they did, the very first act they perpetrated, was to rob the graves of the Indians who lived near Corn Hill on Cape Cod. And we know that is the reason, the real reason, Pilgrims starved that first winter. They robbed Indian graves.
When conservatives decry “revisionist” history, what’s really on trial is history told accurately for the first time. Most of us grew up with halcyon images of benevolent pilgrims sharing a meal with the natives, yet the realities of American colonization have more to do with the Pequod War than with turkey; more with King Philip’s War than stuffing and succotash. Jonathan L. Walton gives an impassioned plea to teach history by telling the truth; the radical argument that children can handle the reality of what happened in history, horror and all.
Think about it: tragically, most American children grew up on a steady play schedule of cowboys and Indians and/or cops and robbers in the backyard…So why is it only when preparing the Columbus Day, Thanksgiving Day, or even Martin Luther King Day programs that we get all skittish about violence and conflict around our kids?