An American tradition: New book on Thanksgiving reminds us of the ties that bind

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For most Americans, Thanksgiving is about what author Melanie Kirkpatrick calls the three Fs—family, feasting, and football. But, beyond the well-worn story about that first feast shared by pilgrims and Indians in 1621, few of us know the history of the holiday—or how deeply it is woven into our experience as a nation.

That’s where Kirkpatrick’s new book, Thanksgiving: The Holiday at the Heart of the American Experience, comes in.

Kirkpatrick, senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and former deputy editor of the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal, starts where we would expect — at the beginning, with the pilgrims. But she retells the story without merely rehashing what readers already know. In the process, she clears away the cobwebs of myth so that the true history of the event shines all the more brilliantly. No, the pilgrims did not actually land on Plymouth Rock, but the stories about their struggles to survive, a certain Native American named Squanto who taught them to fish and plant corn, and the three-day feast among the Wampanoag and the pilgrims are all true.

edited THANKSGIVING: THE HOLIDAY AT THE HEART OF THE AMERICAN EXPERIENCE By Melanie Kirkpatrick Encounter Books, 272 pages, $25.99

 For Kirkpatrick, the pilgrims define the American spirit. They exemplified quintessential American virtues such as courage, perseverance, diligence, piety, and gratitude. Their quest for freedom from English oppression—specifically, religious liberty—would later inspire the colonists during the Revolutionary War. And their experience as newcomers being welcomed in a foreign land is something with which later waves of immigrants from the late nineteenth century onwards have identified.

For many Americans, Thanksgiving begins and ends with the pilgrims. But Kirkpatrick takes the reader through four centuries of political, cultural, and religious history to tell the tale of how Thanksgiving became a sacred and utterly unique American holiday.

“Thanksgiving has grown up with our country. It reflects our national identity as a grateful, generous, and inclusive people. When a twenty-first-century American takes his place at the Thanksgiving table or volunteers at a local food bank, he is part of a continuum that dates back to 1621, when the Pilgrims and the Indians shared their famous three-day feast,” she writes.

Put another way: the history of Thanksgiving is, in many ways, the history of America.

During the earliest years of the republic, Congress debated whether a national Thanksgiving proclamation would violate the separation of powers between the federal and state governments or abridge the freedom of religion established in the First Amendment they had just approved. Congress, ultimately, recommended a proclamation and President George Washington obliged, setting a precedent for his successors.

It would not be until Abraham Lincoln, however, that a presidential proclamation of Thanksgiving became an annual custom. For a nation torn by civil war, Lincoln saw a day of Thanksgiving as a unifying holiday. Later in the nineteenth century, the holiday became a way of assimilating the waves of immigrants arriving on American shores.

The tradition of Thanksgiving on the fourth Thursday of November had become so enshrined in American culture by the mid-twentieth century that President Franklin Roosevelt sparked a national uproar when he tried to change the date to the third Thursday—inviting unflattering comparisons to Hitler and communist Russia.

Kirkpatrick also introduces readers to largely unknown figures, like Sarah Josepha Hale, the social reformer and women’s rights advocate who used her influential post as the editor of a popular ladies magazine in the nineteenth century to lobby for the establishment of Thanksgiving as an annual national holiday.


“The story of how Thanksgiving became a national holiday is itself a classic American saga of how one enterprising, hardworking individual with a good idea can have an impact in an open, democratic society,” Kirkpatrick writes. (Hale left her mark on our culture in other ways as well: she penned the poem Mary Had a Little Lamb and helped spread the custom of Christmas trees.)

One of the strengths of the book is the eloquence and insight Kirkpatrick brings to her assessment of Thanksgiving as a religious holiday: “It is that rarest of religious holidays, one that all religions can, and do, celebrate. For this, as in so many other things, the nation can thank George Washington, who declared our first Thanksgiving as a nation in a proclamation that embraced people of all faiths. The Pilgrims came to our shores seeking religious freedom. On Thanksgiving Day, Americans of all faiths—and of none—can give thanks that they found it.”

That message of unity amid cultural difference seems more sorely needed than ever, especially in the wake of a presidential election that many regard as one of the most bitterly divisive in the modern era.

Thanksgiving is also chock full of holiday trivia. For example, Kirkpatrick speculates that—as incredible as it might seem—that the pilgrims might have played some primitive version of the sport we know today as football during their Thanksgiving feast. Turkey, however, was likely not on their menu. Nor was pumpkin pie.

Her book really has something for everyone. One chapter probes the history of holding football games on Thanksgiving—a tradition almost as old as the holiday itself. Another chapter treats readers to a review of the culinary traditions associated with the day.

Like the Thanksgiving holiday itself, Kirkpatrick goes out of her way to be inclusive. She addresses and well-summarizes the range of Native American opinions regarding the tradition. She acknowledges the growth of a Thanksgiving tradition in Canada. And she even devotes an entire chapter to the many other colonial contenders for the title of “First Thanksgiving”—such as the celebrations by Catholic Spanish settlers in Texas and Florida.

Thanksgiving even includes a how-to element. In one appendix, Kirkpatrick has collected suggested readings for the holiday—spanning pilgrim leader William Bradford to evangelist Billy Graham. A second appendix contains traditional recipes for Thanksgiving dishes, going back to 1796.

Like its subject matter, Thanksgiving is a feast of political and cultural history that is arriving on bookshelves just in time to whet our appetites for the approaching holiday. Given its wide range and timeliness, history buffs, sports fans, foodies, and pretty much anyone else who celebrates Thanksgiving would appreciate this book as a party favor or gift this holiday season.