Thanksgiving: A Celebration of Domestic Life
If recent years are any indication, this year we'll be treated, yet again, to a smattering of articles about the supposed politics behind Thanksgiving, and how the bad guys (whether on the left or right) are opposing all things decent by refusing to celebrate the holiday in a way that promotes the correct political agenda. On one side are the leftists who feel compelled to use Thanksgiving as an extension of Columbus Day, in which we're all reminded that it's a bad thing to steal from indigenous tribes. One the other side are the conservatives who insist on making Thanksgiving into a day celebrating a national origin story. July 4, it seems, isn't enough for them.
Unfortunately, both of these efforts at hijacking the holiday for political battles refuse to go away. Fortunately, it appears that the vast majority of Americans don't care, and most plan to enjoy the holiday in the way it has been enjoyed for about 150 years: as a celebration on domestic life and economic prosperity.
The Evolution of Thanksgiving
As a holiday, Thanksgiving has gone through several different forms. As described in James Baker's study of the holiday, Thanksgiving: The Biography of An American Holiday, there had been a variety of Thanksgiving traditions practiced throughout the US, but few of them closely resembled the Thanksgiving we now know today.
Moreover, the activities people adopted to commemorate the holiday changed significantly over time. According to Baker, in the holiday's early years, it served as "the Puritan stand-in for Christmas (a holiday they rejected as noncanonical and pagan), an early winter time for feasting and pious hope before the long, dreary months of cold and privation to follow."
While a large meal was often had at the celebration, the holiday was mostly religious in character. The "highlight" of the day was a long, stern sermon, presumably from a Calvinist clergyman.
The holiday had long been celebrated in New England and other regions as a sort of harvest festival, but it did not commonly involve any narratives about Pilgrims. That sort of thing was reserved for "Forefather's Day" which had its own commemoration in New England on December 21. Needless to say, the rest of the country — especially those with little connection to New England — did not enthusiastically celebrate the establishment of the Plymouth Colony.
Indeed, the use of tales about the Pilgrims' "first Thanksgiving" did not become a widespread practice until the 1900s. It was a complete invention of the public schools which then, as now, spent precious little time on academic skills in favor or concentrating on endless hours of busywork and cultural indoctrination. According to Baker:
[T]he inculcation of those Thanksgiving images in generations of schoolchildren was probably a major factor behind the ultimate success of the Pilgrim Thanksgiving iconography. This familiar cycle was not an important part of American education before the end of the nineteenth century. There had been earlier holiday activities for kids and children’s books such as Hamilton’s Red-Letter Days in Applethorpe (1866) that explained the basis for holiday observances, but the complete subsumption of the civic calendar into the school curriculum was the result of a new progressive approach to education that paralleled the contemporary impulse to create new holidays for everything from labor and flags to birds and trees. This grammar school adaptation of civic ritual not only exposed students to the lessons of “Americanism” but also turned traditional holiday stories such as that of the Pilgrims into children’s fare.
By the time the public schools were turning the holiday into a day about Pilgrims, though, the annual rituals of Thanksgiving — which persist to this day — had been established quite independently from the political agenda. Far from being a national day to celebrate "forefathers" or the Plymouth Colony, Thanksgiving had already become a celebration of domestic life and family fun.
The Rise of Thanksgiving as a Domestic, Consumer-based Holiday
In her history of Victorian America, The Feminization of American Culture, Ann Douglas explains the transformation that took place as US culture moved away from the hard-nosed theology and philosophy of the 18th century, and toward something quite different.1 Baker notes:
As Ann Douglas has demonstrated, the middle-class women involved in this “domestic revolution” found ready allies among the liberal clergymen of the era, who had been deprived of the political and social clout of their established Puritan predecessors. Laying claim to the social conscience of their generation, they instituted a regime of “sentimental” values in place of the old Enlightenment no-nonsense rationality and the tough-minded, aggressive Calvinist theology of the previous era.
This domestic revolution that Douglas describes went hand-in-hand with the rise of Victorian culture in the United States. It combined with the new economy of mass production and mechanization to help create the nostalgic, sentimental, and consumption-fueled event we now think of as the Thanksgiving holiday in practice. The meal, the family gathering, and the domestic setting for celebration that are all now familiar were established in this Victorian period. The biggest change over the years has been the addition of football - first viewed in person and then on television - as an additional family activity.
The prosperity of the second half of the 19th century made it possible. Although the Gilded Age is today badmouthed as an era of working people suffered as Robber Barons ran factories with an iron fist, it was during this period that countless Americans were able to move out of poverty, and into the middle classes for the first time.
These changes made it easier for families to create a domestic experience with all the trimmings that Victorians valued — and which are now hallmarks of the standard American Thanksgiving celebration. Not only was food becoming more affordable for many, but more Americans could afford more and better versions of silverware, china, clothing, and furniture. They could afford more building supplies for nicer homes, and — as was happening in Europe as well — more workers could afford to actually take some time off to enjoy recreational team sports, a day at a park, and other pastimes.
Thanksgiving was no longer a religious holiday — in which Americans contemplated complex theological truth — and much more so a holiday of consumption, recreation, and the domestic life of home and family.
This new phenomenon of buying mass-produced goods to augment one's domestic enjoyment expanded into the early 20th century, so that by the 1920s, Thanksgiving was looking more and more like a holiday geared around buying things.
A new holiday event emerged in the 1920s—the Thanksgiving Day parade. Strictly speaking, Thanksgiving parades are not about Thanksgiving at all but Christmas, yet they do provide a Thanksgiving Day activity that is enjoyed by millions of Americans in person or on TV. ... The first Thanksgiving parade was put on by the Gimbel Brothers Department Store in Philadelphia on November 25, 1920. It consisted of fifty people, fifteen cars, and a fireman dressed as Santa Claus who marched in the parade and then entered the Gimbels Toy Department by a ladder. The central feature of the Gimbels Thanksgiving Parade, like all similar parades, was the “official arrival of Santa Claus” in his most marketable guise as patron saint of holiday commerce.
Of course, department stores were themselves a creation of Victorian culture, first in England, and later in the United States. In terms of economics, they offered a higher standard of living for their customers and they offered many goods not available anywhere else. And what goods they did have were often at lower prices than at smaller stores. On a cultural level, the department stores were important as well. They offered unprecedented freedom for women who could use the department stores as a safe place to meet with others in public places, unescorted by men. Employment at these stores also offered many young women an escape from farm work and factory work. And, of course, for the primary managers of the household budget — which is what many middle class Victorian women were — department stores offered a new, clean, and comfortable place to do business.
Thus, it's no wonder that our modern practice of Thanksgiving is so wrapped up with the Victorian version of the holiday. It sprang from the 19th-century spread of consumer goods — and the social freedoms that came with them. The Thanksgiving that we know, and which most of our grandparents knew, is a an apolitical holiday formed around the modern world of relative plenty made possible by the modern industrialized economy.
Don't expect any of these facts to stop the crusaders who will try to ruin the holiday with lots of talk about "the first Thanksgiving" and whether it was a Holy Meal or a prelude to genocide. For 150 years, Thanksgiving has really been about sitting around with friends and family, and eating a very large meal. This is one thing we shouldn't let the culture warriors take away from us.