Book World: Review of James Baker's 'Thanksgiving,' a biography

By Alexander Nazaryan
Wednesday, November 25, 2009


The Biography of an American Holiday

By James Baker

Univ. of New Hampshire. 273 pp. $26.95

Even in these deeply partisan times, Thanksgiving remains beloved across political and ethnic divides. In its current incarnation, the holiday calls for little more than gathering with family and eating to excess. What creed or culture will frown at that?

James Baker, a former researcher at Plimoth Plantation in Massachusetts, does not wag a scholar's dour finger at what has become a turkey-and-football jamboree. But in his comprehensive and readable history of the holiday, he does remind us that Thanksgiving is more than those "ubiquitous, mass-produced images of buckle-hatted Pilgrims, generic Indians, turkeys, pumpkins, and cornstalks." For the Puritans aboard the Mayflower, Thanksgiving was a religious service to acknowledge God's providence. Its focus was prayer, not festivity. And while the Massachusetts Pilgrims did celebrate a harvest holiday in fall 1621 with friendly Wampanoags, Baker argues that this landmark event "meets none of the qualifications for an orthodox Thanksgiving."

But as the country grew, so did its need for a national mythology. With the "Yankee diaspora" fanning out from New England, Thanksgiving shed its origins in religious ritual and became conflated with the "narrative of courage, suffering, and perseverance" that had marked the first harvest in the New World and now infused the westward push of Manifest Destiny.

Toward the end of the 19th century, with railroads crisscrossing the nation and factories dotting its landscape, Thanksgiving attained a sentimental image promulgated by popular entertainments like the pastoral prints of Currier & Ives. For those stuck in cities and displaced from families, such rustic reveries represented "the virtues many citizens felt had been lost in the industrialization and modernization of American culture."

Idealized -- and inaccurate -- images of the first Thanksgiving continued to reinforce traditional values in an increasingly fragmented society. "Thanksgiving to me means Obeying," schoolchildren recited in 1937. Two decades later, the Cold War further subjugated Thanksgiving to a "streamlined version of American history that had all the corners rounded off." Those corners sharpened again in the 1960s. Native Americans arrived in Plymouth for the 1969 holiday to defiantly declare that "Indians have nothing to be thankful for." Revisionist historians berated Puritans for "rigid fundamentalism," while other states -- Virginia, Florida, even Texas -- made competing claims on the original thanksgiving service.

Baker acknowledges Native American grievances and sorts assiduously through the erroneous depictions of this "enthusiastically muddled" holiday: Pilgrims did not adorn themselves with buckle hats and ruffled collars, the Wampanoag bore little resemblance to the Plains Indians they are usually depicted as, and log cabins did not exist in Colonial New England.

And still Thanksgiving evolves, absorbing the myriad cultures of our patchwork land. Some years ago USA Today suggested a dizzying Thanksgiving feast that included Chinese sweet potato-coconut puree, Cuban corn stew, Jamaican chutney and turkey basted in Mexican molé. Christmas has nothing on that.

Nazaryan is working on a novel about Russian organized crime in New York.

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