A man shops in a Toys-R-US store in Virginia during a Black Friday sale on Thanksgiving evening in 2015. Photo: AFP/Paul J. Richards
A man shops in a Toys-R-US store in Virginia during a Black Friday sale on Thanksgiving evening in 2015. Photo: AFP/Paul J. Richards

Thanksgiving: The Holiday at the Heart of the American Experience, by Melanie Kirkpatrick. Encounter Books, 2016. 270 pp. US$26.99

Thanksgiving Day is distinctively American. Days of Thanksgiving for good harvests or victory in war, to be sure, are as old as civilization, and the first days of thanksgiving on American soil were not proclaimed by English settlers, as Melanie Kirkpatrick reports in this delightful account of the holiday. That honor fell to Spanish and French Huguenot explorers. English colonists in Virginia, moreover, held a feast of thanksgiving before the 1621 harvest feast held by the English Pilgrims in Massachusetts Bay with their Wampanoag Indian neighbors. Kirkpatrick, an editor at the Wall Street Journal, parses fact and legend in reviewing the customs connected to the holiday.

What makes Thanksgiving uniquely American is the remarkable fact that it is the year’s most important occasion for family reunions as well as a holiday of strong patriotic association. It is the heaviest travel day of the year, moreso even than Christmas. No other country combines such strong family as well as national association, for no other country thinks of itself quite the way that America does. The Pilgrim theme, to be sure, was the one of what Lincoln called America’s “mystic chords of memory,” that is, mystically invented sometime after the fact.

The now-ubiquitous Pilgrims of Thanksgiving Day were ignored until New Englanders revived their memory with Forefather’s Day in 1769, seven years before the American Revolution, a now-forgotten holiday that marked a place for the future national feast. “As the 13 colonies trod the path to rebellion, war and independence, Americans began to see themselves in the Pilgrims. Like the 18 Century American revolutionaries, the Pilgrims sought freedom from the tyranny of the English Crown. A century and a half after the Mayflower had delivered the Pilgrims to the New World, the heirs of the Pilgrims were prepared to go to war to finish the job their forefathers had begun,” Kirkpatrick writes.

The subsequent history of the holiday tells us a good deal about America’s character. In 1789, shortly after the ratification of the Constitution, President George Washington proposed a federal proclamation of a day of thanksgiving, A certain Aedanus Burke of South Carolina, reports Kirkpatrick, objected that this would emulate the customs of Europe, where both sides in a war would sing the Catholic De Teum or a suitable Protestant equivalent to celebrate victory in war. The new Congress supported Washington over Burke’s protest, evidently aware of how different is America from the Old World.

It was Lincoln who fixed the date for a national day of thanksgiving at the last Thursday in November. The holiday took on its own customs and cuisine, colorfully reported by Kirkpatrick. Americans embraced the holiday as both a national day and a family day.

No people in the world travels as much to reunite families as does China during the Lunar New Year, but the New Year festivities are a respite from, rather than a celebration of, the state. Germany has Harvest Thanksgiving Festivals (in fact, the standard Germany dictionaries render the English “Thanksgiving Day” as “Erntedankfest.” It is nothing of the kind, although the Pilgrims’ Harvest festival was brought in to the mix.

Nor is America’s Thanksgiving a memorial to a long-forgotten victory. As Washington and Lincoln proclaimed it, Thanksgiving is, rather, a day of gratitude for the existence of the United States of America itself.
Americans are different from other peoples, and that is why we gather our families on the day set aside for contemplation of the blessings of the existence of America itself. Germany is Germany, and France is France, because they are inhabited by Germans and Frenchmen respectively. We are Americans, though, because there is an America; without America, we would not be what we are. Indeed, we would not be here at all. That is why our babes and old folks gather around the great table at Thanksgiving. Our families come together to celebrate what we are.

Some hold this against us. Alexander Gauland, the deputy chair of the “populist” (actually ultra-riht) Allianz für Deutschland, recently called Americans “a people thrown together by chance [zusammengewürfelt] without an authentic culture.” It is true that we do not have the long-incubated culture of many European nations, but we nonetheless have a distinct national culture that in some respects has been remarkably successful. In particular, America has great powers of regeneration that time after time have surprised the world.

In my 2011 book How Civilizations Die I observed that the failure of the Old World made necessary the founding of the new, and no-one understood that better than the Pilgrims: Years after the Pilgrims landed on Plymouth Rock, their leader William Bradford recalled the fearful deliberations of the English Separatists in the Dutch port of Leyden in 1620. They had few illusions about the dangers of resettlement in the American wilderness and in fact half of them would die during their first winter there. The risks of staying, though, were just as frightening; Spain, at war with the Dutch Republic since it overthrew Spanish rule in 1568, was about to invade. And “the Spaniard,” Bradford wrote, “might prove as cruel as the savages of America.”

Bradford wrote: “It was granted the dangers were great, but not desperate, and the difficulties were many, but not invincible; for although there were many of them likely, yet they were not certain. It might be that some of the things feared might never befall them … They lived here but as men in exile and in a poor condition; and as great miseries might possibly befall them in this place; for the 12 years of truce were now out, and there was nothing but beating of drums and preparing for war, the events whereof are always uncertain. The Spaniard might prove as cruel as the savages of America, and the famine and pestilence as sore here as there, and liberty less to look out for remedy.”

For Asians who want to understand what makes Americans tick, Kirkpatrick’s new volume is a good place to start. It also has Thanksgiving dinner recipes.