Thanksgiving is here, and not a moment too soon. A nation weary from a divisive election is ready to go home and come together again, one plate of turkey and dressing at a time.
A day of gratitude seems like a balm for what ails us. So you may be surprised to learn how often Americans have argued even about this cherished day.
That took me aback as I read Melanie Kirkpatrick’s new book, “Thanksgiving: The Holiday at the Heart of the American Experience.” Kirkpatrick, a former editor for the Wall Street Journal (to whom, for full disclosure, I reported for part of my time with that newspaper), recounts how the holiday evolved thanks to various events and personalities.
Controversies, too. Within decades of the Pilgrims’ arrival in Massachusetts, an annual day of “general” thanksgiving — for continuous blessings, not specific ones — was common in New England. But “only after a spirited theological debate,” Kirkpatrick writes. Some thought such a routine observance would “make people take God’s generosity for granted.”
The requirements of thanksgivers also varied. Though the Pilgrims played games on their first Thanksgiving in 1621, and Dutch settlers in modern-day New York did likewise, New England law held that “days of thanksgiving were treated like the Sabbath — as days of rest,” Kirkpatrick writes. “Work and entertainments were banned. Violators faced fines and other punishments.” In 1696 a man near Boston was fined 10 pounds and forced to stand for an hour in the stocks for plowing a field on the holiday.
George Washington made the first presidential Thanksgiving proclamation in 1789, but only after a debate in Congress about whether it was up to the executive, or the federal government at all, to proclaim such a thing. (The custom was, and long remained, for state governors to declare such days.) Thomas Jefferson refused to follow suit, saying he did “not consider (himself) authorized” to declare a holiday with religious meaning due to the First Amendment. When Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1939 moved Thanksgiving up by a week to allow more time afterward for Christmas shopping, everyone from college students to calendar makers complained.
Speaking of college students, the roots of Thanksgiving football go back farther than I had imagined. The first turkey-day games were played in the 1870s, with Princeton and Yale kicking off the tradition that is now better known for involving the NFL’s Detroit Lions (since 1934) and Dallas Cowboys (1966). But this, too, has had its ups and downs: Journalists lamented that the games distracted fans from the day’s original intent of gratitude and reflection, and college faculty were appalled by the alcohol-fueled revelry.
We’re not even sure when — or where — the first day of general thanksgiving in this country took place. We all learn as children that Thanksgiving was handed down to us by the Pilgrims at Plymouth Rock in 1621. Not so, say those in San Elizario, Texas, who claim Spaniards and Native Americans near what is now El Paso beat them to it by 23 years. Bah! say partisans from St. Augustine, Florida, who argue other Spaniards and Indians did the same way back in 1565. Virginians claim the first New World thanksgiving with Englishmen took place there two years before Plymouth’s Pilgrims prayed.
The Pilgrims won out in popular culture as the turkey-day trendsetters, but even that belies a historical curiosity: Their first feast with the Wampanoag Indians was largely forgotten by Americans until some documents from the Plymouth settlement were rediscovered in the mid-19th century.
Read in the context of contentious 2016, what stood out to me was not just how often we’ve argued about a day now considered peaceful. It was how distant those fights — not to mention others, about far more significant topics — are in our memories now.
So, take some time today to be thankful that, as good as we are at being at odds with one another, we’re even better at remaining one in the end.