Thanksgiving Day

This post is an excerpt from my unpublished book for young readers giving the history of American holidays:

When you think of Thanksgiving you may see visions of a big turkey dinner and a four-day weekend. If you’re like me (I hope not!) you probably think that ever since the first Thanksgiving dinner in 1621, Americans have had a big November feast every year since. This popular cozy image may be heartwarming, but it is wrong. Thanksgiving in history is a custom that goes back to the Puritan settlers. Puritans came to America so that they could practice their religion freely. They were religious people (not a great sense of humor); things had been pretty tough for them – crossing the stormy Atlantic in small ships, not knowing what to expect when they arrived, lots of people dying on the way – not an easy thing to do! Once they got here, there were no grocery stores and they hadn’t planted crops earlier in the year, they didn’t even know what would grow here. Many didn’t survive, they weren’t America-tolerant you might say.

What we think of as the first Thanksgiving involved English colonists (Pilgrims) in the Massachusetts Bay Colony and the Wampanoag tribe of Native Americans. One of the Wampanoag, Squanto, served as an interpreter – pretty big of him, considering he’d learned English from being a slave. He taught the settlers how to grow corn, which was unknown in Europe. (What the English called “corn” is what we call “wheat.” The more correct word for what we call “corn” is “maize.”) Squanto also taught the Pilgrims how to catch eels to eat – maybe he found a way to pay them back after all! The first Thanksgiving meal in 1621 followed the Pilgrims’ first successful harvest. They ate deer and some wild birds – enter the turkey! – along with their crops.

You see, both the Wampanoag and the English had traditional harvest festivals – many peoples do. “Thanksgiving,” however, has to do with, well, giving thanks. Did I mention that the Pilgrims were religious? They believed that God had successfully brought them here, so they thanked God. Not every early harvest was so great. In a bad year they had a day of mourning rather than a Thanksgiving feast. Some historians place the first “Thanksgiving” in 1923. The Pilgrims had experienced a drought. Frantically they prayed for rain, and, Flanders-like, it came. So they held a Thanksgiving. These Massachusetts Puritans held Thanksgivings in church rather than around a banquet table. For them, these irregular days of giving thanks marked the survival of difficult times, not fancy food. So they held occasional Thanksgivings, not watching football after a big meal, but praying in church. By the middle of the 1600s settlers began to have a harvest-day Thanksgiving pretty much every year, but not always on the same day. They had not set a specific date to give thanks and feast.

Puritans, you must realize, gave thanks at the proverbial drop of a buckled hat. They prayed before meals as a regular practice – something many families continue to do. To set aside a day for special prayers, like Thanksgiving, was as natural for them as women wearing bonnets. The practice of having an annual (yearly) day of giving thanks got underway in Massachusetts around 1630. Other colonies joined in, but not always at the same time. Remember, harvests come at different times in different places.

[See Full Essays for the rest of the story.]

The Chosen Peoples

My thanks go to Simon & Schuster for sending me a review copy of Todd Gitlin and Liel Leibovitz’s new book, The Chosen Peoples: America, Israel, and the Ordeals of Divine Election (2010). Briefly, the book traces the origins of the concept of being a chosen people in both Israel and the United States. This concept is then shown in relief with those who are “unchosen.” The authors conclude by highlighting the national sense of mutual goodwill between Israel and the United States. The full text of this review is on the Full Essays page of this blog.

I read this book wearing multiple hats. Since the first chapter traces Israel’s sense of chosenness from Biblical times to the present, I began by wearing my Biblical Scholar hat. Many of the questions asked and raised about the Bible reveal a naivety about traditional claims of biblical authorship. Although certainty cannot be achieved, biblical scholars have applied textual and literary techniques to the text for well over a century now, and many of the claims simply accepted by Gitlin and Leibovitz simply do not stand up. This may seem a minor flaw, but since Abraham is foundational to this outlook, it is essential to at least consider his lack of historical attestation. Gitlin and Leibovitz assume that Genesis, with its stories of Abraham, predates the books that follow. This is not a safe assumption to make, and using this background as a foundation for further analysis might well lead to structural problems with the argument later on.

Wearing the hat of an historian, I noticed how much of the force of the argument of the book is interwoven with the idea that God has actually chosen Israel. I have told my students for many years now that historians do not make claims on God or God’s alleged activities. Texts that narrate God’s actions tend to be classified as myths rather than history. The concept of chosenness, which Gitlin and Leibovitz are reluctant to relinquish, is based on the premise that God has indeed done the choosing. An historian would be extremely reticent to make such a claim. Having noted this concern, the authors do a fine job of providing a brief, readable history of the founding of modern Israel without recourse to what God was doing in the twentieth century. When the authority of the Bible is needed, it is quoted here in King James English, hardly the most accurate translation available.

Gitlin and Leibovitz suggest that chosenness is more a curse, at times, than a blessing. The reasoning seems to be that the concept of chosenness leads inexorably to Zionism. The ideas interact on a much more subtle level than that, although certainly the Zionist movement has owed and continues to owe quite a heavy debt to the concept. The generalizations here are a bit broad – political motivations may not receive their full due. Toward the end of the chapter the ideology of messianism is engaged and brought into the discussion. It is not clear that messianism is the same as chosenness; the two ideas both emerge in Judaism, but do not always overlap. When the authors state that Zionism has always been messianic at heart (p. 57), that may be correct, but it does not necessarily reflect chosenness. Gitlin and Leibovitz are very good at pointing out the inconsistent application of the idea of messianism in the formative stages of the modern state of Israel.

Please see the Full Essays page for the remainder of this review.