The Animus Behind Thanksgiving and other American Holidays


On November 24, America celebrated its second most popular holiday, Thanksgiving, which originated in 1621, when the 47 survivors of a contingent of 102 English religious dissenters celebrated their first Massachusetts’ harvest. As every school child knows, the Pilgrims came to America in search of religious liberty. What few school children know is that once they arrived, they murdered Indians (whose heads they displayed on posts), and crushed dissent from their own beliefs with stocks, pillories, execution, and banishment. 

School children are rightly informed that the Pilgrims invited their Indian friends to that first Thanksgiving, but they aren’t informed that 95% of the indigenous population would soon be dead of European diseases and their survivors forced onto a reservation. Or that when a party of hungry women and children stepped across the reservation boundary to pick huckleberries, the Pilgrims slaughtered them. With the exception of the Pennsylvania Quakers, the coming of Christ to America was invariably marked by rape, theft, murder, enslavement, mutilation, branding, and forced conversion.

Thanksgiving lacks the mercenary aspect of Christmas, its focus being on families getting together to gorge on 46-million turkeys. Yet, it would be wrong to conclude that Americans are wild about turkey, which, during the rest of the year, is only found in nitrate-laden sandwich meat. However, the Pilgrims ate turkey, so we do too. The holiday is notably depicted in two paintings, one of armed Pilgrims walking to church (Americans might not care for turkey, but we love our guns), and the other of a family of white people preparing to devour a fowl so noble that Benjamin Franklin proposed it as our national symbol. 

As for the governmental celebrations, miscellaneous officials encourage prayer and—of course—thanksgiving, and radio programs that contain only bad news the rest of the year, suddenly talk about how wonderful life is. Then, there’s the annual presidential turkey pardoning in which America’s president of the hour formally pardons a random turkey for unstated crimes, thus allowing at least one turkey to escape the slaughter.

For millions of Americans, the significance of Thanksgiving is less about the day itself than the day after, Black Friday, the official kick-off of the Christmas shopping season. On some years, poor parents form long lines on Thanksgiving night so they can get into stores before the Season’s Hot Toys run out. People are occasionally injured in the opening melee and many more in the slug-fests that follow when stock runs low. I’ve heard rumors to the effect that a few poor parents are able to pay-off their children’s purchases before it’s again time to honor the impoverished Christ child.

This year, my mail carrier brought the happy news that a local store’s Black Friday Sale would begin on the preceding Tuesday. As everyone who isn’t in a coma realizes, the Christmas shopping season actually began in late August when Christmas trees (faux, of course) and plastic ornaments went on display amid the rollicking noise of Jingle Bell Rock and the angelic chords of O Holy Night. Scrooges and Grinches naturally gripe about Christmas decorations displacing other merchandise, with some even arguing that five months of Christmas might not be strictly necessary. 

Another big Thanksgiving event is the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade. Back when the emphasis was on organizational floats, marching bands, and baton twirling young ladies from Dubuque, Iowa, or Montpelier, Vermont, I enjoyed the parade enormously. Now that Internet groups have largely replaced groups in which people actually get together in person, the emphasis is more upon hand-waving actors and lip-synching musicians than upon dogs jumping through hoops or acrobats from Wyoming. In my darker moments, I suspect that the primary purpose of the parade is selling movie tickets, Quarter Pounders, and Disney merchandisewhen I tuned in today, I was greeted by a Ronald McDonald balloon followed by a Green Giant float. Such cynicism didn’t blossom unwatered....

When, as a child, I began watching the CBS Evening News with my father, commercials accounted for 13% of the broadcast. They now run 31%, yet that number only includes the obvious commercials, other commercials being woven into the news itself. For example, the ABC, CBS, or NBC anchor will say, “Here is where you can find the best deals on the Christmas gifts you want most,” and the camera will cut to a shouting reporter in a noisy mall who will dutifully rattle off a list of products, prices, and store hours at selected national chains (selected how, I don’t know). Mind you, this is not a commercial, this is, as one anchor puts it, “The news that America cares about most.” 

I was largely ignorant of the extent of holiday commercialization until I was seventeen and took an after school job as the only stock clerk in a small town F.W. Woolworth’s. This was in September and in no time at all, Christmas merchandise began coming up the freight escalator faster than I could unload it. Smart fellow that I was, I had, of course, observed that Christmas involved gifts, but I had somehow overlooked the extent to which the impoverished Christ child had been reborn as a merchandising gimmick. Yet because birth lends itself to celebration, I didn’t find this particularly disturbing—besides, I had spent my entire life benefiting from it—but turning Holy Week (the week that Christ was tortured, murdered, and resurrected) into an excuse to Slash Prices on lawnmowers, chocolate rabbits, and women’s dresses was another matter. 

After Easter comes another solemn American holiday, Memorial Day, the main purpose of whichas I discovered at Woolworth’s—is to honor America’s war dead with the Lowest Prices of the Season on grills, lawnmowers, and patio furniture. Sales on July 4th (the day that celebrates America’s independence from horrid old England), I could understand because it really is a celebratory occasion, and Drastically Reduced Prices on beer, fireworks, picnic supplies, and sports equipment, certainly encourage celebration. 

Labor Day is another matter due to the perversity of “honoring” American workers by forcing millions of them to work harder and longer during yet another Biggest Sales Event of the Year. More recently, Martin Luther King, Jr. Day has been added as another truly perverse holiday in that it honors a man who condemned excessive consumption by—wait for itencouraging excessive consumption with A Sale Too Good to Miss. America now has so many legal holidays (days on which many people get paid for staying home) that we’ve combined Washington’s Birthday and Lincoln’s Birthday into a single sales event called Presidents’ Day, which features Door Buster Markdowns on mattresses, appliances, and furniture. Of course, holidays don’t have to be this way….

Peggy and I celebrate Valentine’s Day with a kiss, even when kisses aren’t on sale. For Halloween, we display a half-dozen knickknacks of scary cats, scary ghosts, and scary pumpkins. For Thanksgiving, we place two cute knickknacks—one of a Pilgrim-clad gentleman squirrel and the other of a Pilgrim-clad lady squirrel—above the stove where we can enjoy them while preparing our feast of Tofurkey with gravy, cornbread dressing, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, green beans, walnut pie, and whatever else comes to mind. 

Christmas is our biggest decorating holiday, although gifts play only a small part in it. To whit... We each receive $200 from Peggy’s father; home-baked cheese-straws from Peggy’s sister; and various gifts from a reader of this blog whose generosity is such that she would buy us luxury cars and ocean cruises if she could afford it, not because of how special we are, but because of how special she is. We also prepare a meal that is a repeat of Thanksgiving, but with the addition of Spritz Cookies (made from sugar cookie dough put through a cookie press and decorated with “sprinkles”).

I’ll close on a comedic note by sharing a condensed version of how the long-ago Greek traveler Herodotus described a Thanksgiving pilgrimage to the holy city of the Egyptian cat-goddess, Bastet. Although universally adored by the lower classes, the humble cat-goddess was scorned by the lion-worshiping nobility. Like the mother cats she represented, Bastet was austere yet cuddly, fierce yet protective, and above all things joyful. She told her followers to love themselves, and she ordained that her worshipers gather to have sex, drink wine, play music, dance, and otherwise celebrate being alive. Herodotus writes to us from 450 BC: 

“Now, when they are coming to the city of Bubastis they sail men and women together with a great multitude of each sex in every boat. Some of the women have rattles and rattle with them [note the rattle in Bastet’s right hand], while some of the men play the flute during the whole time of the voyage, and the others, both women and men, sing and clap their hands; and when they come opposite to any city, they bring the boat to land, and while some of the women continue to do as I have said, others shout and jeer at the women in that city, some dancing, and others exposing themselves. This they do in every city along the Nile; and when they reach Bubastis, they consume more wine than during the whole of the rest of the year. To this place (so say the natives) they come together year by year even to the number of 700,000 of men and women, besides children.”


Emma Springfield said...

I am in favor of any day that encourages us to be with our loved ones and enjoy them. To remember the reason we gather is a plus. It is important to know of negatives in our history is important or they will be repeated. It is also important to remember the positives. I say let us come together with love.

PhilipH said...

Thanks for this informative and interesting post.

Thanksgiving in America is now understood. I've never bothered to look into the whys and wherefores of this holiday event.

Christmas is 'crackers' and turkey is not for me. Each to his own, of course, but I find it all far too much of nothingness. Glad to see the back of it all.

That's it! Bah Humbug etc.

Strayer said...

My nephew's wife matter of factly told me Thanksgiving no longer has anything to do with Pilgrims and Indians, that everyone knows what went on with all that, that's its only about family getting together. Not turkey either. The whole lot are vegetarians. I like the bright lights of Christmas and hate taking down my 25 year old fake tree, at some point in January. I know christmas is a mish mash of pagan and Christian bullshit. I just like the bright lights.

The Blog Fodder said...

You do have a lot of commercially exploitable holidays to buy stuff you don't need.
That spam lady Mary hit about 12 of my blog posts. Your comment disappeared when I removed hers.
Happy Holidays.

Snowbrush said...

"I am in favor of any day that encourages us to be with our loved ones and enjoy them."

How sad that "celebrating" such occasions with a sale prevents millions of people from doing just that.

"Christmas is 'crackers' and turkey is not for me. Each to his own, of course, but I find it all far too much of nothingness."

I both enjoy it and deplore it. The parts I deplore include the crass materialism as well as the story of the son-god who came to die as a blood-sacrifice for our sins so that the father-god could forgive us for being what he made us to be.

"My nephew's wife matter of factly told me Thanksgiving no longer has anything to do with Pilgrims and Indians, that everyone knows what went on with all that, that's its only about family getting together."

She's certainly a lot more optimistic about how much Americans know about history than I am, because I very much doubt that more than a few Americans know "what went on with all that." In surveys, few Americans even know what "went on" with the Civil War (or even who won), or Pearl Harbor, or the Declaration of Independence, or the Freedom Riders, or most other important national events or the people behind them, so it's not looking good for Americans knowing the ins-and-outs of Pilgrim history. When they arrested the Locerbie bomb maker this week, I seriously wondered how many Americans know where Lockerbie is, or what happened there, or when the event at Lockerbie occurred.

"The whole lot are vegetarians."

Peggy and are too, which was a little sad way back when we had family to eat with, the reason being that intimacy happens best when people mirror one another's behavior. Are there particular things that you like to eat at Thanksgiving or Christmas?


Snowbrush said...

"I like the bright lights of Christmas and hate taking down my 25 year old fake tree, at some point in January."

Same here except that we bought our tree in Minneapolis in 1989. It was an expensive tree, but we got it for half-off after Christmas, and it has certainly proven itself a worthwhile investment. It still has enough needles to look okay, but it's hardly in the best of shape. The thing about it is that it's so old that it's as much a part of our decorations as are various highly cherished ornaments. I suffer from S.A.D., and the tree cheers me, but Peggy insists that it come down a couple of weeks after Christmas, and would be no good for me to keep it up beyond the time that she no longer enjoying it.
"I know christmas is a mish mash of pagan and Christian bullshit."

I think that celebrating our planet's natural cycles is a lovely thing to do, and of course, that's what originally happened at the winter solstice and then spring equinox. Then came Christianity, and because Christians were unable to squelch such celebrations, they changed their meaning by imposing Christ upon them. This is why I feel pissy when I see signs proclaiming, "Jesus is the Reason for the Season," as if that's what the season is about and therefore non-Christian celebrations are a perversion. Such people are either ignorant of or choose to ignore the fact that if Jesus even existed, the events described in the Bible would have fixed his birth in early spring.

"You do have a lot of commercially exploitable holidays to buy stuff you don't need."

Well, my Canuck friend, if THAT doesn't prove that America is the greatest nation on earth, I don't know what does! Seriously, these holidays weren't created for the purpose of giving capitalists another pretext for making money. They were created to honor and/or celebrate a great person(s) or a noteworthy event, and then--sometimes much later--they were twisted into an obscene perversion of their original intent. The fact that this happens serves as proof that, in America, money stands at the very top of the nation's hierarchy of sacred things, ranking SO high that America even uses the one day of the year that it set aside to honor its war dead as simply another excuse to make--or save--money. Who the hell would deem that such a country is worth dying for?

kylie said...

Australia doesn't even have Thanksgiving but we have Black friday Sales. How is that even possible?
I deplore the commercialisation of every holy day, celebration or unusual event and have scaled back our Christmas celebrations. Gifts are minimal, gorging on food is less minimal but still doesn't feature whole pig legs or turkeys. Having done this I feel as though I am in a better ethical position but I wonder if I have taken the fun out of it for my family.
I have always been in favour of the "Jesus is the reason for the season" motto simply forthe fect that it points us to a spiritual event instead of shopping. I see what you mean though, it's a bit parochial

Snowbrush said...

"Having done this I feel as though I am in a better ethical position but I wonder if I have taken the fun out of it for my family."

Things are easy for Peggy and me because we only have ourselves and the cats to consider, and the cats don't care how we celebrate as long as there's food in it for them. We don't even buy them toys anymore because all they play with are the boxes that the toys came in, and we can get boxes for free.

"I have always been in favour of the 'Jesus is the reason for the season'... I see what you mean though, it's a bit parochial"

Kylie, you so clearly care about how your religion affects others. Sadly--very sadly--that is not the driving force behind the most visible form of Christianity in my country, it being the belief of such Christians that God will bless America if it is a Christian nation with right-wing values, and God will curse America if it is not. This leads them to do everything possible to force their religion and their exclusionary values upon others, yet the harder they try, the more unwholesome they appear to others, which is one of the reasons that the number of non-religious Americans is growing by multiple percentage points yearly. As I write, 29% of Americans are now "religious nones," a number that differs by age and region. I see the movement to "keep Christ in America" as being like the movement to keep America white and heterosexual in that it only exists because the people behind it know that they are losing.

Kylie, regardless of whatever inadequacies you might see within yourself, I see in you a noble attempt to live in accord with your best light and your highest values. So it is that my faith is not in God's goodness but in the goodness of people like you and Strayer (whose comment you responded to) because I find in both of you inestimable compassion and a courageous resolve to do good, and the fact that one of you is a believer and the other an atheist is meaningless to me because words don't make a person good or bad. Antoine de Saint-Exupéry wrote the following about this in 1943, which was the year before he died in World War II:

“And now here is my secret, a very simple secret: It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.”

kylie said...

I'm pretty sure you overestimate me!
Christianity was what I was raised to believe in and I find it a good structure for becoming better but I have never thought it is the only way.

I have read numerous articles with titles like "America's Christless Christianity" and I think that many people (in Australia, too) identify as Christian as a kind of politcal/ idealogical/ capitalist thing quite removed from the way it was intended

Snowbrush said...

"I'm pretty sure you overestimate me!"

Are you not a committed Christian of many years to whom her master said: "Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect." And did he not also say to you: "You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl"? But enough of performing the function of an advocatus diaboli. I'm well aware that you have not met Jesus' impossibly high standard, yet perfection isn't what I was praising you for.

Perhaps, you have observed that many believers have left this blog, not because I showed contempt for them but because I asked them to do as St. Peter commanded when he wrote: " ready always to give an answer to every man that asketh you a reason of the hope that is in you." Unlike so many others, you have tried to do that, and it has endeared you to me, as has your openness about your struggles, it being my experience that most Christians do everything possible to stifle their minds so that they won't have to struggle. Sadly, this is what Jesus told them to do when he praised children for believing, although he surely knew that the belief of children is born of naivete and based upon authoritarian claims.

Donald Trump spoke as Jesus did when he said--as he often did--such things as, "Believe me... I am the chosen one, and only I can fix it." I don't mean to compare the morality of the two men, but simply to point out that they gave their followers the same false basis for believing in them.

"Christianity was what I was raised to believe in and I find it a good structure for becoming better but I have never thought it is the only way."

I never meant to suggest otherwise, although it is true that I am well-acquainted with such thinking, having grown-up among otherwise wonderful people who believed that every person who did not believe as they did would suffer everlasting agony in hell. I considered it tragically ironic that their model of perfection failed miserably according to their own standards of right and wrong.

"I have read numerous articles with titles like "America's Christless Christianity'"

I would like to see some of them if possible because I haven't. While I would agree that Christlessness is the logical outcome of their beliefs, I know that they would deny that they are Christless. In fact, they consider themselves extremely devoted to Christ in the sense of thinking that only believers in Christ will be saved and everyone else will be damned (their definition of what damned means varies). The problem with this emphasis on "personal salvation" is that it transforms their religion into a personal afterlife fire insurance policy, and so it is that their self-centeredness about the next world extends into this world.

They even quote verses such Proverbs 22:4 ("The reward for humility and fear of the Lord is riches and honor and life") to "prove" that the poor aren't their responsibility because their poverty is their own fault, and so to help them would be to counteract God's righteous judgment. Theirs is a truly depraved religion, Kylie, yet for every verse you might quote to prove that they are wrong, they could quote another verse to prove that you are wrong. So it is with faith-based beliefs that rest upon contradictory writings, this being a reflection which invariably leads me to ask why God could not have done better to convey his expectations.