A feast of facts in Baker’s ‘Thankgiving’
Thanksgiving came late in 1939 when the traditional fourth Thursday fell on Nov. 30 - a date of much concern to retailers facing barely three weeks until Christmas.
In 1933, facing a similar dilemma, store owners had made a plea to the federal government to move the date up but were rejected. This time, however, responding to their concerns, President Franklin D. Roosevelt set the observance a week earlier.
Traditionalists protested, and confusion reigned as 23 states complied with Roosevelt’s directive, and 23 held to the traditional fourth Thursday. Two states, Texas and Colorado, celebrated both days.
Wags called it “Franksgiving.’’
That is one of the delightful tidbits that James W. Baker serves up in “Thanksgiving: The Biography of an American Holiday.’’
As former director of research at Plimouth Plantation, and a go-to guy on all things Thanksgiving, Baker knows the holiday inside and out and shares that knowledge with authority and an ear for what Peter J. Gomes, the Harvard minister who grew up in Plymouth, calls in a foreword, its “unique charm.’’
Baker traces how the celebration has changed over the years. In the 18th century, Thanksgiving was viewed as a day for family reunions, and the Pilgrims were remembered as the symbolic founders of New England. But the connection between the two had been lost by the time George Washington issued the first presidential Thanksgiving proclamation in 1789.
The problem, Baker says, was that there were few surviving copies of “Mourt’s Relation,’’ the account of the first Thanksgiving in 1621 from which we draw our modern conception of the holiday. Once one was discovered in a Philadelphia library in 1820, the tradition of Thanksgiving as a harvest celebration, complete with pumpkin and turkey, was settled.
A basic bill of fare from the 1840s sets the table not only with a roast turkey, but “a pair of chickens, stuffed, and boiled with cabbage and a piece of lean pork,’’ and a chicken pie.
By way of contrast, there is also a more modest menu from an Army Air Force unit stationed in the “Mediterranean Theater of Operations’’ in 1944 that includes the traditional turkey, along with “June Peas,’’ buttered corn, probably canned, and a pumpkin pie.
While the depiction of the first celebration in “Mourt’s Relation’’ highlights racial harmony, the popular view of the relationship between the Pilgrims and the Native Americans has been portrayed with darker overtones.
One 1895 print shows a young musket-armed Pilgrim comforting his wife outside their cabin, from which the door has been ripped off. Lying dead in the snow at their feet is an Indian.
An illustration in the Thanksgiving issue of Harper’s Illustrated two years later shows a Colonial hunter lying dead in the snow, his holiday turkey and his musket beside him, while a group of Indians can be seen emerging from the woods.
Baker suggests that part of what would have informed that 19th-century view of the threat represented by Native Americans was that the Indian wars, which only ended after Wounded Knee in December 1890, would have been fresh in readers’ minds.
Many Native Americans, on the other hand, would come to view Thanksgiving as a celebration of colonialism and reject it by marking the day with protests at Plymouth and through the annual Day of Mourning, which has been observed since 1970.
Baker notes that the struggle over the significance of the Thanksgiving holiday continues, with historical accuracy often the victim of political advantage.
But, he argues, “the holiday’s cultural vigor is actually demonstrated by the conflicts and debates that surround it.’’ For, he observes, “debate indicates relevance, and the dispute over the appropriate role of Thanksgiving in American life demonstrates that the holiday is very much alive and still evolving.’’
Michael Kenney is a Cambridge-based freelance writer.