Thursday, November 24, 2016

Thanksgiving Day

Norman Rockwell. Freedom from Want
American, 1943
Stockbridge, MA, Norman Rockwell Museum

One thing that impressed me during the period in my twenties when I was spending a great deal of time abroad was the solemnity with which we Americans approach the concept of a national holiday.

For example, Americans and both the English and Irish have a holiday at both the beginning and the end of summer.  I don’t know which side of the Atlantic began the practice, but I do know that, for us, each of these days is endowed with a significance that does not have a correspondence on the other side of the pond.

On the European side the summer holidays are simply the early and late summer Bank Holidays, identified by the month in which they occur (e.g, June Bank Holiday).

For us the early summer holiday is Memorial Day, on the last Monday in May.  It was established at the end of the Civil War, to remember those who fought for the Union.  It gradually became a day of remembrance for the soldiers of the Confederacy as well.  And, as America entered later wars, it became the day on which we solemnly remember those American soldiers who died in all our wars.  Its acts of solemn remembrance make it most similar to what is known as Remembrance Day in the UK and British Commonwealth countries.  This day falls on November 11, in memory of the dead of the First World War, which ended on November 11, 1918.  Americans do have a holiday on November 11, but we call it Veterans Day, and on that day remember the veterans of all wars, with a particular emphasis on living veterans.  Also, Veterans Day is a far less solemn occasion than Memorial Day, few businesses close, although there are some memorial events in some places.  In New York, for example, there are a few short parades, and wreaths are laid at memorial edifices in Madison Square Park, Riverside Park and Central Park.  But, unlike Memorial Day, it is business as usual in most non-governmental offices and public transportation runs on a Saturday schedule, instead of a holiday one.

In the US the late summer holiday is called Labor Day and is observed on the first Monday of September.  It honors the labor movement in the US and, by extension, everyone who works.  If there is an analogy elsewhere it is most likely to be found in the May Day celebrations of socialist countries.   Thus, it seems that we Americans feel a need to have a serious purpose of remembrance behind every national holiday.  

Looking more broadly at the American holiday calendar one can see that, where other countries have many holidays that have been handed down to them from the old Catholic religious calendar, even though they are no longer religious in nature, we have only one of them.  Christmas is the only one of the old Christian religious festivals that is still a national holiday.  

However, we have invented other holidays to reflect our American civil religion in the form of holidays, such as:

  • New Year’s Day (This honors the official first day of the civil year); 
  • Martin Luther King Day (This day is in memory of Dr. King and the Civil Rights Movement), 
  • Presidents’ Day (This is a conflation of the birthday holidays of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, who were born on February 12 and 22 respectively.  It has become primarily a day honoring all our Presidents, including those still living.);
  • Memorial Day (This honors those who died in all wars in which America took part and is discussed above);
  • Independence Day (This holiday remembers July 4, 1776 and the Declaration of Independence);
  • Labor Day (This honors the labor movement and all American workers and is discussed above.);
  • Columbus Day (This day commemorates the landing of Christopher Columbus on the Atlantic edge of North America);
  • Veterans’ Day (This day honors all veterans of American wars, including those still living.  It is discussed above.) and;
  • Thanksgiving (This commemorates the first year spent by the English Pilgrims in what is now the state of Massachusetts.  The Pilgrims were one of the first groups of English settlers in what is now the United States.  Since the Pilgrims were religious dissenters in England, it also commemorates the idea of religious freedom on which many of the original English colonies were founded and which became enshrined in the United State Constitution.  It is a day set aside for giving thanks to God freely, no matter what one's idea of "God" may be.  It is discussed below.)

Jean Leon Gerome Ferris, The First Thanksgiving 1621
American, 1899
Private Collection

Thanksgiving was first proclaimed as a national day of  “public thanksgiving and prayer” by America's first president, George Washington, in 1789. That first "official" Thanksgiving Day was set for Thursday, November 26, 1789.  Washington's Proclamation read:
By the President of the United States of America, a Proclamation. 
Whereas it is the duty of all Nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey his will, to be grateful for his benefits, and humbly to implore his protection and favor-- and whereas both Houses of Congress have by their joint Committee requested me to recommend to the People of the United States a day of public thanksgiving and prayer to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many signal favors of Almighty God especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness. 
Now therefore I do recommend and assign Thursday the 26th day of November next to be devoted by the People of these States to the service of that great and glorious Being, who is the beneficent Author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be-- That we may then all unite in rendering unto him our sincere and humble thanks--for his kind care and protection of the People of this Country previous to their becoming a Nation--for the signal and manifold mercies, and the favorable interpositions of his Providence which we experienced in the course and conclusion of the late war--for the great degree of tranquility, union, and plenty, which we have since enjoyed--for the peaceable and rational manner, in which we have been enabled to establish constitutions of government for our safety and happiness, and particularly the national One now lately instituted--for the civil and religious liberty with which we are blessed; and the means we have of acquiring and diffusing useful knowledge; and in general for all the great and various favors which he hath been pleased to confer upon us. 
and also that we may then unite in most humbly offering our prayers and supplications to the great Lord and Ruler of Nations and beseech him to pardon our national and other transgressions-- to enable us all, whether in public or private stations, to perform our several and relative duties properly and punctually--to render our national government a blessing to all the people, by constantly being a Government of wise, just, and constitutional laws, discreetly and faithfully executed and obeyed--to protect and guide all Sovereigns and Nations (especially such as have shewn kindness unto us) and to bless them with good government, peace, and concord--To promote the knowledge and practice of true religion and virtue, and the encrease of science among them and us--and generally to grant unto all Mankind such a degree of temporal prosperity as he alone knows to be best. 
Given under my hand at the City of New York the third day of October in the year of our Lord 1789. 
Go: Washington 1

The day is currently observed on the fourth Thursday of November since being fixed on that date in 1941.  Prior to that it had been observed, as Washington had set it, on the last Thursday of November (which often, but not always was also the fourth Thursday).

Jennie A. Brownscombe, The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth
American, 1914
Lakenhal. Stedelijk Museum de Lakenhal

This is the only holiday in the latter part of the year that is applicable to everyone.  The end of year holidays that follow:  the fixed days of Christmas and Kwanzaa and the moveable holidays of the Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist and Hindu calendars are all the heritage of one or another religious and/or ethnic group in society, in spite of the fact that there is also a massive secular and highly publicized “Christmas” (now usually rendered as "Holiday") celebration focused on gift giving and entertaining, which tends to obliterate both the religious aspect of the Christmas season and all the other religious/ethnic celebrations as well.

Doris Lee, Thanksgiving
American, 1935
Chicago, Art Institute

So, the national day of Thanksgiving can be appreciated and celebrated by everyone.  However, we would do well to remind ourselves that this day also came out of a very specific Christian milieu, the Puritans and Pilgrims of early seventeenth-century New England and, ultimately, reaches back through time to Catholic and even pre-Christian harvest celebrations.

Augustus Saint-Gaudens, Pilgrim
American, 1885
New York, Central Park, Pilgrim Hill 

Any agricultural society depends hugely on the harvest.  With a good harvest one is assured that one will have enough food to survive the coming winter and will have seed to plant in order to start the cycle of life again the following spring.  Consequently, people have been thanking the gods or the one God in the autumn for thousands of years.  Pre-Christian peoples offered a sacrifice of part of the harvest to their gods.  Christians offered prayers of thanksgiving to God and sometimes offered part of their produce to help the poor or to support the church.  After the Reformation, Protestant Christians retained the practice of giving thanks to God for a good harvest.

Augustus Saint-Gaudens, The Puritan
American, 1883-1886, Cast 1899 or after
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art

By all accounts the Pilgrim settlers who landed at Plymouth, Massachusetts in 1620 had a very bad first season.  It was not until the spring of 1621 that the local Wampanoag tribe befriended them and, with the help of a Patuxet man named Tisquantam (Squanto), 2 taught them better techniques to farm the North American land.  

The autumn of 1621 brought abundance for the first time and a harvest celebration dinner was held to give thanks to God for the good harvest.  The English settlers and the Native Americans both provided food to this joint celebration and from this feast came the germ that became the Thanksgiving holiday.  It still centers around a feast and, in particular, around a native American bird, the turkey, instead of around the more traditionally English beef, pork or venison.  And, although its religious inspiration has become almost forgotten, most Americans do take to heart the idea that they should be, and usually are, thankful for the good things in their lives. 

In the history of American art there is little acknowledgement of the Thanksgiving legend, though there was a flutter of interest around the end of the nineteenth century as the nation dealt with the need to reunite after the Civil War, by reminding all Americans of the foundations of English-speaking North America.

George Henry Boughton, Pilgrims Going to Church
American, 1867
New York, New-York Historical Society

This vacuum does seem a bit odd, but is probably exactly right.  American art, prior to abstraction, seemed more oriented toward recording the contemporary than in recreating the past as “history painting”.  In fact, American artists who preferred to work in history painting, such as Benjamin West, usually moved to the Old World in order to advance their careers.

© M. Duffy, 2016

  1.  See The Library of Congress collection of the Papers of George Washington for the full text and an image of the original document at
  2.  Tisquantam had an extraordinary life.  Taught English by one of the very first English settlers in northeastern North America in order to act as an interpreter, he was taken to England to interpret for a group of Native Americans being taken as a kind of exhibition group.  The group, including Tisquantam, were seized on the return voyage by pirates, who transported them to Spain in hope of selling them as slaves.  In Spain they were reportedly rescued by a group of “monks” or “friars”, possibly the Mercedarians (For their story see Saint Raymond Nonnatus – The Saint Who Really Exists).  Tisquantam lived in Spain for some time and may have been baptized as a Catholic. However, he eventually returned to England, where he lived for several years, and finally made his way back with another English expedition to Massachusetts.  On his return he found that most of his Patuxet tribe had died in an epidemic, so he made his way as an interpreter between the English colonists and members of the Wampanoag tribe who spoke an Algonquian language similar to his own.  It was through his services as interpreter that the Natives were able to assist the English settlers with their crops in 1621.  While acting as interpreter for another English settlement the following year (1622) he became sick and died.

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