North Texas Daily

Thanksgiving about more than turkey and togetherness

Thanksgiving about more than turkey and togetherness

Thanksgiving about more than turkey and togetherness
November 26
14:36 2013

Joshua Knopp / Senior Staff Writer

Abraham Lincoln delivered the first modern proclamation of a day of thanks in 1863 as a way to make everyone take a break from the Civil War. Since then, Thanksgiving has grown into a large national holiday that traces roots further back, all the way to the initial settlers in New England.

History doctoral students Jack Andersen, Chad Tomaselli and Jordan Hayworth said modern-day Thanksgiving arose from harvest feasts that were typical to all-agriculture-based societies. Europeans and American Indians had both celebrated this type of festival before settlers established a foothold in the New World. These festivals have become Thanksgiving in the U.S., the Harvest Festival in Britain and Oktoberfest in Germany.

“The Germans did the right thing by saying, ‘Oh, we’re going to turn it all into beer,” Andersen said.

Andersen said Thanksgiving wouldn’t be a big deal today if it weren’t for the money it drives.

“We don’t really talk about Thanksgiving anymore,” he said. “We talk about Black Friday. It’s not about remembering the original events.”

Thanksgiving-type festivals held by Europeans in the Americas first started in El Paso in 1598, Andersen said. At the time, El Paso was one of many cities set up along the Rio Grande River to prevent Native Americans crossing into present-day Mexico and to convert them to Catholicism. It was here that city officials declared the first “day of thanks.”

English settlers didn’t get to America for another decade. The first permanent settlement was Jamestown, established in 1607, and nobody was giving thanks for anything. The first settlers consisted of second- and third-generation nobles who weren’t prepared to fend for themselves, and the land was an infertile swamp to begin with.

The settlement’s lack of food came to a head in 1609, when settlers had to resort to cannibalism and eating their own excrement, Tomaselli said.

Ten years later, England established the Plymouth colony on what would become the coast of Massachusetts. There, in 1621, settlers held what many refer to as the first Thanksgiving.

Though the idyllic image of white settlers and American Indians eating and making merry together did probably take place, the two groups would be at each others’ throats 50 years later in the King Philip’s War. After both sides suffered massive casualties, settlers eventually killed and dismembered King Philip.

Andersen said the settlers had lost half of the towns between Massachusetts and Maine and a tenth of military-aged men, but the American Indians were almost completely wiped out.

“If you’re writing an origin story, it’s nicer for kids if you just talk about how everyone got along,” Andersen said. “And you ignore all the death and disease going on in Jamestown.”

Harvest festivals remained frequent occasions through the 1700s and 1800s. Andersen said today’s national holiday became what it is primarily because of money.

“Sociologists call it marketization,” sociology professor Gabriel Ignatow said. “Seemingly everything is up for sale, and that’s how people value themselves.”

Ignatow said marketization has to do with the things Americans buy and the media they consume. The Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and the National Football League’s special Thanksgiving games have captured the media market and become the iconic Thanksgiving Day activity.

“Maybe it’s a ritual that says a lot about American society,” he said. “We eat turkey and watch football.”

Ignatow said this phenomenon has both good and bad sides, and pointed to the unifying ability of the holiday as a plus.

Merchandising and digital retail chair Tammy Kinley said for some retailers, the winter holiday season that Thanksgiving starts can amount to 25 percent of their yearly sales.

“It has become the date on the calendar at which Christmas season starts,” she said.

Kinley said many retailers plan for the winter season a full year in advance, down to the individual day. She said stores sometimes have a “beat last year book,” in which a date’s sales will be marked down as a benchmark.

Feature photo: The scene depicted is the oil painting ‘The Pageant of a Nation’ by Jean Ferris is a romanticized version and not historically accurate. The clothing worn by the Pilgrims is incorrect, the Wampanoag did not wear feathered war bonnets, nor would they have been sitting on the ground. Graphic courtesy of the U.S. Library of Congress 

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