The Three Stages of Thanksgiving
Giving thanks to God for all His blessings was the holiday's origin
Stage One: The first Thanksgiving was celebrated in Plymouth Colony in 1621.
The Pilgrims set out for North America in September 1620. Storms put them off-course during their Atlantic crossing, to land farther north — off present-day Massachusetts — than they planned. Finding themselves in a wilderness at the start of a New England winter, disease and limited provisions took their toll. Happily, through working with local Indian tribes in early 1621, the Pilgrims were able to plant and gather a harvest.
When they sat down to give thanks for that harvest in the fall of 1621, fewer than half the Mayflower’s original passengers and crew were still alive. They indeed had reason to give thanks: for sheer survival, for the bounty of a first harvest, for support from the indigenous peoples. They had, through the Mayflower Compact, established the first local government in British North America.
The Pilgrims were an offshoot of the Calvinist Reformed Protestants whom we know better in North America as the Puritans. The Calvinist wing of Protestantism was in growing tension with the official Protestant Church of England. Within thirty years, they would be fighting that church and its ostensible head, the king (whom they would behead in 1649). One thing united them: both sides persecuted Catholics.
But, back in 1620, one way some British Calvinists sought to accommodate themselves was by removing themselves to the “New World.” The Pilgrims — who in some ways were even stricter than the Puritans — hoped that separatism would keep them religiously pure. They tried that first in Holland, but while the religious environment might have been congenial, the different culture was de-Anglicizing their children. Going off on their own to North America seemed to promise religious purity and cultural continuity.
That the Pilgrims celebrated “Thanksgiving” was not a wholly novel invention. While Calvinist English Protestants were strict in their keeping of Sunday, they rejected the liturgical calendar. The Pilgrims, for example, rejected Christmas. The Puritans banned Christmas in Massachusetts by law from 1659-81, and December 25 only became a Bay State holiday in 1856.
In lieu of traditional liturgical holidays like Christmas, the English Calvinists marked both “Days of Fasting and Humiliation” when they discerned events to be suggestive of divine chastisement and “Days of Thanksgiving” when they perceived signs of God’s blessings. Being alive with something to eat after a severe year of testing would have qualified for the latter. So, while the first Thanksgiving — connected with a harvest — clearly featured a meal, eating was not its focus. Giving thanks to God for all His blessings, temporal and spiritual, was.
Stage Two: The shift from unlimited gratitude to modified gluttony can be seen in the early 1800s.
“Over the River and Through the Wood” started out as a poem published in Massachusetts in 1844. By that date, Puritanism had long yielded to a more tolerant Congregationalism and even an indulgent Unitarianism. Lydia Child’s poem is long on family — grandfather, grandmother, barnyard animals, the dog — but short on “thanksgiving” (except for mentioning it’s “Thanksgiving Day”).
Here we see the second transformation of Thanksgiving, from its original religious purpose to a family-centered celebration of memory — with allusions to Grandmother’s pudding, pumpkin and other assorted pies. That’s not to say the religious was lost but, rather, that it receded into the background, not unlike Dickens’s contemporaneous “Christmas Carol” which says precious little directly about Christmas as the birth of Christ.
One can say, arguably, that religious consciousness among the Anglo-American peoples in the mid-19th century was still strong. In North America, explicit religious associations tended to be shaven down by a dominant form of generic Protestantism — “American civic religion” — that managed to say enough without saying too much to embrace the “Big Five”: Baptists, Episcopalians, Lutherans, Methodists, and Presbyterians.
Another transition is the “privatizing” of Thanksgiving. Plymouth 1621 was a communal celebration of the survivors and their Native American friends. Child’s 1844 Thanksgiving has shifted from a communal to a familial setting, a change that continues to dominate American celebration. Some may mark the community aspect by volunteering to serve a meal at a homeless shelter or soup kitchen, but the locus of the “real” Thanksgiving for the average American is Thanksgiving dinner at the family dining room table.
Stage Three: The commercialization of Thanksgiving in the 20th century.
Lamenting the commercialization of the “holidays” is a standard trope. Lucy assures us in “A Charlie Brown Christmas” that “We all know Christmas is a big commercial racket. It’s ruined by a big Eastern syndicate, ya know.”
The commercialization of Christmas has bled into Thanksgiving and perhaps for longer than most people realize. It was FDR who shifted Thanksgiving from the last to fourth Thursday of November in 1939 to prolong the pre-Christmas buying season and get America finally out of the Depression. Since then, the Friday after Thanksgiving has changed from a family day. “Black Friday” has become such a dominant commercial event that many towns have adopted code restrictions to keep businesses shut on Thanksgiving evening and to protect (generally low wage) employees from having to report to the store Thursday night. Friday has spawned individualized buying days on Saturday, Sunday, Monday, and the following week before careening into a generic “holiday buying season.”
The religious identity of Thanksgiving continues to run on fumes, especially given the rise of religious-unaffiliated “Nones” among young people. We give “thanks” without specificity as to whom or for what.
This year is likely to be a test of whether people will again travel after the enforced familial fractures of lockdowns. For those who do gather, the family dinner table is threatened by partisans with talking points ready to deploy for mutual indigestion. And are we all just waiting to pile into the car (preferably an EV) to go to midnight madness at the mall?
Maybe what we need is a return to our roots. The Pilgrims certainly didn’t have Plymouth Mall and one suspects they also were careful to ensure there’d be sufficient provisions for the winter ahead. Can we get back to Thanksgiving, Stage One?
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