By HOWARD TROXLER, Times Columnist
We are taught that the Pilgrims celebrated their first Thanksgiving out of gratitude for a good harvest. That’s a nice way of putting it. A harsher way is that they were thankful for not being dead, and for having an improved chance of not dying in the immediate future.
Only 55 of 102 members of the Plymouth colony survived that first winter of 1620-1621. The rest starved or died of disease.
Yet when the Mayflower sailed back to England the next spring, all 55 of them stood there and watched it leave, determined to stick it out.
That was an impressive act of faith. I wonder if we would be up to it today. If the Pilgrims had spent the winter watching Hannity & Colmes or Crossfire or Hardball, would their spirit have been sapped? They probably would have divided 28-27, with each side engaging in negative campaigning against the other. (“Don’t Let The Liberals Win — Let’s Go Home.” Or: “What Exactly Is Miles Standish Trying To Hide?”)
Fortunately, not being so distracted, the early settlers stayed and were befriended by a native American named Tisquantum. They decided to call this native Squanto (as if that were much easier than “Tisquantum”). Squanto showed them how to grow native crops and other tricks of survival.
With a bountiful harvest in the fall of 1621, therefore, Gov. William Bradford decided it was a good time to give thanks to God. Our modern ecumenicalism, not to mention our textbooks, now dictates that we say merely that they “gave thanks” in an unspecified fashion, perhaps to some guy named Ed.
Even back then, politics was a part of Thanksgiving. Bradford decided it would be a good policy to invite the natives. In our schoolhouse pageants, we portray this as sweet, innocent harmony. In reality, Bradford made sure there were plenty of musket displays to impress the locals.
Politics has been intertwined with the holiday ever since. The first nationally proclaimed holiday in American was a Thanksgiving, to commemorate the defeat of the British at Saratoga. That was a Dec. 18, so it is just as well the tradition did not stick or else we would have no time to get ready for Christmas.
There were early disputes over whether proclaiming Thanksgiving was an appropriate role of the government at all. Thomas Jefferson, in particular, did not think it was any of the president’s business to suggest to the citizens that they be thankful.
In the new nation, Thanksgiving was a state-by-state affair, proclaimed willy-nilly. In the northern states it became associated with the anti-slavery movement. Starting with Lincoln, every president declared an annual Thanksgiving on the fourth Thursday of November right up until FDR in 1939.
FDR upset tradition in 1939 by trying to move Thanksgiving to the third Thursday of November. Ironically, this was a pro-business move by Roosevelt, to lengthen the Christmas-shopping season.
But the Republicans would have none of it. Many states with Republican governors or Legislatures announced they would ignore the president and stick with the fourth Thursday. They ridiculed the third-Thursday holiday as ”Franksgiving.”
In 1942, Congress took over and made the fourth Thursday the permanent home of the holiday. (Incidentally, the fourth Thursday in November also is the last Thursday in November five years out of seven.)
As a child I did not learn a proper appreciation for Thanksgiving, considering it to be a way station on the interminable path to Christmas. Now even that role has been diminished, given that trees and decorations and shopping-mall Santas appear early in November.
Yet as time passes, the importance of the day seems to grow. All of our conflicting philosophy leads to the same conclusion: Whether it is by random lightning strike or divine intervention, the universal clockwork has labored for 15-billion years to deliver us to this point, a candle flicker out of all eternity in which to debate the merits of canned versus homemade cranberry sauce. Thankful? The only proper response is to be utterly amazed.
– With credit to the book Thanksgiving: An American Holiday, An American Tradition, by Diana Karter Appelbaum, Facts on File Publications, 1984.
© St. Petersburg Times, published November 27, 2002