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Thursday, November 28, 2013

On the History of Thanksgiving: Challenging Assumptions

We humans are so used to living in our subjectivity that we hardly notice it or the effect it has on us. In particular, we are hardly able to detect or observe the delimiting consequences of the assumptions we hold on an ongoing basis. That is to say, we have no idea (keine Anung) of the extent to which we take as unalterable matters that are actually quite subject to our whims individually or as a society (i.e., shared assumptions). In this essay, I use the American holiday of Thanksgiving, specifically its set date on the last Thursday of November, to illustrate the following points.
 
First, our habitual failure to question our own or society’s assumptions (i.e., not thinking critically enough) leaves us vulnerable to assuming that the status quo is binding when in fact it is not. All too often, we adopt a herd-animal mentality that unthinkingly “stays the course” even when doing so is, well, dumb. In being too cognitively lazy to question internally or in discourse basic, operative assumptions that we hold individually and/or collectively, we unnecessarily endure hardships that we could easily undo. Yet we rarely do. This is quite strange.
 
Second, we tend to take for granted that today’s familial and societal traditions must have been so “from the beginning.” This assumption dutifully serves as the grounding rationale behind our tacit judgment that things are as they are for a reason and, moreover, lie beyond our rightful authority to alter. We are surprised when we hear that some practice we had taken as foundational actually came about by accident or just decades ago.
 
For example, modern-day Christians might be surprised to learn that one of the Roman emperor Constantine’s scribes (i.e., lawyers) came up with the “fully divine and fully human,” or one ousia, two hypostates, Christological compromise at the Nicene Council in 325 CE. Constantine’s motive was political: cease the divisions between the bishops with the objective being to further imperial unity rather than enhance theological understanding.[1] Although a Christian theologian would point out that the Holy Spirit works through rather than around human nature, lay Christians might find themselves wondering aloud whether the Christological doctrine is really so fixed and thus incapable of being altered or joined by equally legitimate alternative interpretations (e.g., the Ebionist and Gnostic views).
 
Let’s apply the same reasoning to Thanksgiving Day in the United States. On September 28, 1789, the first Federal Congress passed a resolution asking that the President set a day of thanksgiving. After an improbable win against a mighty empire, the new union had reason to give thanks. A few days later, President George Washington issued a proclamation naming Thursday, November 26, 1789 as a "Day of Publick Thanksgivin."[2] As subsequent presidents issued their own Thanksgiving proclamations, the dates and even months of Thanksgiving varied until President Abraham Lincoln's 1863 Proclamation that Thanksgiving was to be commemorated each year on the last Thursday of November. Here, the attentive reader would be inclined to jettison the “it’s always been this way” assumption and mentality as though opening windows on the first warm day of spring. The fresh air of thawing ground restores smell to the outdoors from the long winter hibernation and ushers in a burst of freedom among nature, including man. Realizing that Thanksgiving does not hinge on its current date unfetters the mind even if just to consider the possibility of alternative dates. Adaptability can obviate hardships discovered to be dogmatic in the sense of being arbitrary.[3]
 
The arbitrariness in Lincoln’s proclaimed date was not lost on Franklin Roosevelt (FDR). Concerned that the last Thursday in November 1939, which fell on the last day of the month, would weaken the economic recovery on account of the shortened Christmas shopping season, he moved Thanksgiving to the penultimate (second to last) Thursday of November. He defended the change by emphasizing "that the day of Thanksgiving was not a national holiday and that there was nothing sacred about the date, as it was only since the Civil War that the last Thursday of November was chosen for observance.”[4] Transcending the common assumption that the then-current “last Thursday of November” attribute of Thanksgiving was a salient—even sacred, as though solemnly passed down from the Founders by some ceremonial laying on of hands—in the very non-holiday’s very nature, FDR had freed his mind to reason that an economic downside need not be necessary; he could fix a better date without depriving Thanksgiving of being Thanksgiving.
 
To be sure, coaches and football fans worried that even a week’s difference could interrupt the game’s season. In a column in The Wall Street Journal in 2009, Melanie Kirkpatrick points out that "by 1939 Thanksgiving football had become a national tradition. . . . In Democratic Arkansas, the football coach of Little Ouachita College threatened: 'We'll vote the Republican ticket if he interferes with our football.'"[5] Should Christmas have been moved to April so not to interfere with college basketball? Sadly, the sheer weight being attached to the “it’s always been this way” assumption could give virtually any particular inconvenience an effective veto-power even over a change for the better, generally (i.e., in the public interest).
 
Unfortunately, most Americans had fallen into the stupor wherein Thanksgiving just had to be on the last Thursday of November. “The American Institute of Public Opinion, led by Dr. George Gallup, released a survey in August showing 62 percent of voters opposed Roosevelt's plan. Political ideology was a determining factor, with 52 percent of Democrats approving of Roosevelt's move and 79 percent of Republicans disapproving.”[6] Even though the significance of the overall percentage dwarfs the partisan numbers in demonstrating how pervasive the false-assumption was at the time among the general population, the political dimension was strong enough to reverberate in unforeseen ways.
 
With some governors refusing to recognize the earlier date, only 32 states went along with Roosevelt.[7] As a result, for two years Thanksgiving was celebrated on two different days within the United States. In his book, Roger Chapman observes that pundits began dubbing "the competing dates 'Democratic Thanksgiving' and 'Republican Thanksgiving.'"[8] Sen. Styles Bridges (R-N.H) wondered whether Roosevelt would extend his powers to reconfigure the entire calendar, rather than just Thanksgiving. "I wish Mr. Roosevelt would abolish Winter," Bridges lamented.[9] Edward Stout, editor of The Warm Springs Mirror in Georgia -- where the president traveled frequently, including for Thanksgiving -- said that while he was at it, Roosevelt should move his birthday "up a few months until June, maybe" so that he could celebrate it in a warmer month. "I don't believe it would be any more trouble than the Thanksgiving shift."[10] Although both Bridges and Stout were rolling as though drunk in the mud of foolish category mistakes for rhetorical effect, moving up a holiday that has at least some of its roots in the old harvest festivals to actually coincide with harvests rather than winter in many states could itself be harvested once the “it’s always been this way” assumption is discredited. Just as a week’s difference would not dislodge college football from its monetary perch, so too would the third week in November make a dent in easing the hardship even just in travelling and bringing the holiday anywhere close to harvest time in many of the American republics. As one of my theology professor at Yale once said, “Sin boldly!” If you’re going to do it, for God’s sake don’t be a wimp about it. Nietzsche would undoubtedly second that motion.
 
Why not join with Canada in having Thanksgiving on October 12th? Besides having access to fresh vegetables and even the outdoors for the feast, the problematic weather-related travel would be obviated and Americans would not come to New Year’s Day with holiday fatigue. Of course, we wouldn’t be able to complain about the retailors pushing Christmas over Thanksgiving in line with the almighty dollar, but amid the better feasts and perhaps colorful leaves we might actually allow ourselves to relish (or maybe even give thanks!) amid natures splendors rather than continue striving and complaining.
 
To be sure, resetting Thanksgiving to autumn in several of the states would translate into summer rather than harvest time in several others. Still other states are warm even in the last week of November, and harvest time might be December or March. Perhaps instead of carving the bird along partisan lines, Thanksgiving might be in October (or even the more temperate September!) in the “Northern” states and later in the “Southern” states, given the huge difference in climates. Remaining impotent in an antiquated assumption that lives only to forestall positive change while retailors continue to enable Christmas to encroach on Thanksgiving reeks of utter weakness.
 
Giving serious consideration to the notion different states celebrating Thanksgiving at different times might strengthen rather than weaken the American union. Put another way, invigorating the holiday as a day of thanksgiving amid nature’s non-canned bounty might recharge the jaded American spirit enough to mitigate partisan divides because more diversity has been given room to breathe. For the “one size fits all” assumption does not bode well at all in a large empire of diverse climes. Indeed, the American framers crafted an updated version of federalism that could accommodate a national federal government as well as the diverse conditions of the republics constituting the Union. Are the states to be completely deboned as though dead fish on the way to the market at the foot of the Lincoln Memorial? Is it so vitally important that everyone does Thanksgiving on the same day when “by state” enjoys a precedent?
 
Engulfed in the mythic assumption that the “last Thursday in November” is a necessary and proper fit for everyone and everywhere, Americans silently endure as if out of necessity all the compromises we have been making with respect to the holiday? Perhaps changing the date or returning the decision back to the states would free up enough space for the crowded-in and thus nearly relegated holiday that people might once again feel comfortable enough to say “Happy Thanksgiving” in public, rather than continuing to mouth the utterly vacuous “Happy Holidays” that is so often foisted on a beguiled public. 
 
Like Christmas and New Year’s Day, Thanksgiving is indeed now an official U.S. holiday. This would also be true were the states to establish the holiday as their respective residents see fit. As push-back against FDR’s misguided attempt to help out the retailors and the economy, Congress finally stepped in almost two months to a day before the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in Hawaii (whose harvest time escapes me). The U.S. House passed a resolution declaring the last Thursday in November to be a legal holiday known as Thanksgiving Day. The U.S. Senate modified the resolution to the fourth Thursday so the holiday would not fall on a fifth Thursday in November lest the Christmas shopping season be unduly hampered as it rides roughshod over Thanksgiving. Roosevelt signed the resolution on December 26, 1941, the day after Christmas, finally making Thanksgiving a legal holiday alongside Christmas and New Year’s Day.[11] Interestingly, the U.S. Commerce department had found that moving Thanksgiving back a week had had no impact on Christmas sales.[12] In fact, small retailors actually lamented the change because they had flourished under the “last Thursday” Thanksgiving rubric; customers fed up with the big-named department stores like Macy’s being so overcrowded during a truncated “Christmas season” would frequent the lesser-known stores in relative peace and quiet. Charles Arnold, proprietor of a menswear shop, expressed his disappointment in an August letter to the president. "The small storekeeper would prefer leaving Thanksgiving Day where it belongs," Arnold wrote. "If the large department stores are over-crowded during the shorter shopping period before Christmas, the overflow will come, naturally, to the neighborhood store."[13] This raise the question of whether a major legal holiday is best treated as whatever results from the tussle of business forces oriented to comparative strategic advantage as well as overall sales revenue.
 
Lest the vast, silent majority of Americans continue to stand idly by, beguiled by the tyranny of the status quo as if it were based in the permafrost of “first things,” things are not always as they appear or have been assumed to be. We are not so frozen as we tend to suppose with respect to being able to obviate problems or downsides that are in truth dispensable rather than ingrained in the social reality.


1. Jarslav Pelikan, Imperial Unity and Christian Division, Seminar, Yale University.
 
2.  The Center for Legislative Archives, “Congress Establishes Thanksgiving,” The National Archives, USA. (accessed 11.26.13).
 
3. The other meaning of dogmatic is “partial” in the sense of partisan or ideological more generally. Given the extent to which a person can shift ideologically through decades of living, might it be that partisan positions are not only partial, but also arbitrary?
 
4. Sam Stein and Arthur Delaney, “When FDR Tried To Mess With Thanksgiving, It Backfired Big Time,” The Huffington Post, November 25, 2013.
 
5. Melanie Kirkpatrick, “Happy Franksgiving: How FDR tried, and failed, to change a national holiday,” The Wall Street Journal, November 24, 2009.
 
6. Sam Stein and Arthur Delaney, “When FDR Tried To Mess With Thanksgiving, It Backfired Big Time,” The Huffington Post, November 25, 2013.
 
7. Ibid.
8. Roger Chapman, Culture Wars: An Encyclopedia of Issues, Viewpoints, and Voices (Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, 2010).
9. Sam Stein and Arthur Delaney, “When FDR Tried To Mess With Thanksgiving, It Backfired Big Time,” The Huffington Post, November 25, 2013.
 
10. Ibid.
 
11. The solely religious holidays in November and December are private rather than legal holidays. As Congress cannot establish a religion on constitutional grounds, Christmas is a legal holiday in its secular sense only. Therefore, treating Christmas as a legal holiday as akin to the private religious holidays (including Christmas as celebrated in churches!) is a logical and legal error, or category mistake. Ironically, Thanksgiving, in having been proclaimed by Lincoln as a day to give thanks (implying “to God”), is the most explicitly religious of all the legal holidays in the United States.
 
12. Ibld.
 
13. Ibid.