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.”