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Tuesday, November 20, 2007

How to have a Puritan Thanksgiving.

Ah, the good old days! Eve LaPlante, author of two recent books about life in Puritan New England, describes the penitential days of fasting and thanksgiving practiced by the hard-scrabble Pilgrims and Puritans in the 1600s:

The holiday that gave rise to Thanksgiving — a "public day" that they observed regularly — was almost the precise opposite of today's celebration. It was not secular, but deeply religious. At its center was not an extravagant meal, but a long fast. And its chief concern was not bounty but redemption: to examine the faults in oneself — and one's community — with an eye toward spiritual improvement. . . .

Colonial governments called for public days several times a year, often in response to political, social, agricultural, and meteorological changes, especially disasters. Though the Puritans were aware of randomness in nature, they tended to see a sign of divine vengeance in frightening occurrences such as droughts, epidemics of smallpox, and children's deaths. During a drought, for instance, the court in Boston would declare a public fast day, calling for people to repent for their sins and ask God for help. Once the drought was over the colony would share in a public day of thanks. On these days families prayed at home, reading Scripture aloud and singing psalms, and then attended compulsory lecture services at their meeting houses. In the cycle of fast and thanksgiving days, the community alternately pleaded with and expressed thanks to God.

At the heart of these ceremonies was repentance — or, more specifically, the hope of redemption through repentance. Despite the seeming bleakness of the core Calvinist belief that humanity is fundamental depraved, Puritan theology always left a door open to sinners: If a sinner would only repent, he might return to grace.

Good times! Not until after Americans got tired of having their government call the nation to prayer — in the controversial and partisan decisions of John Adams and James Madison, about which Forrest Church writes in his new book and for UU World — did the modern Thanksgiving celebration take shape:

Our modern concept of Thanksgiving was a later 19th-century invention. During the bloody Civil War, Abraham Lincoln blended the sentimental myth of Pilgrims and Indians sharing a harvest feast with the public need for a celebration of national unity. In 1863 Lincoln declared Thanksgiving an annual federal holiday, beginning a tradition honored by every president since. By linking the day to the Pilgrim-Indian harvest feast, we focus on food rather than on the actual activities and rationale for early-American fast and thanksgiving days.

("The opposite of Thanksgiving," Eve LaPlante, Boston Globe 11.18.07)

Copyright © 2007 by Philocrites | Posted 20 November 2007 at 8:33 AM

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November 20, 2007 09:35 AM | Permalink for this comment

Michael Hall, a member of the UU church in Middleboro, Mass., portrays William Bradford at Plimoth Plantation, the living history museum. As "Governor Bradford", he's careful to point out that the first harvest celebration with the Indians was NOT a "thanksgiving". A "thanksgiving" was a much longer and more sober religious affair, lasting several days, with much fasting and penintence.

Patrick McLaughlin:

November 20, 2007 07:15 PM | Permalink for this comment

Not to mention, fausto, that those early Thanksgivings sort of depended on having ambushed or massacred some of their Wampanoag neighbors.


November 21, 2007 07:42 AM | Permalink for this comment

It seems an universal fact of human societies, that revered rituals supposedly from the ancient past are usually just modern inventions cleverly disguised as tradition. This is sometimes described as "fakelore" (rather than folklore), see the Wikipedia article on that. Neopagans are experts in this kind of historical fabrications, but there are examples of "fakelore" almost everywhere.


November 21, 2007 11:27 AM | Permalink for this comment

If the difference between folklore and "fakelore" is that someone has to be self-consciously deliberate about inventing a past, the difference may only exist in a meaningful way for a short period of time until others start experiencing the fakelore as folklore.

In some ways, a tradition needs to be plausibly related to the past in the minds of its practitioners — but its practitioners may have a rather broad range of attitudes about what counts as plausible.


November 21, 2007 12:26 PM | Permalink for this comment

...those early Thanksgivings sort of depended on having ambushed or massacred some of their Wampanoag neighbors.

That only came a few decades later. An excellent history of the time is Nathaniel Philbrick's recent book, Mayflower.

...the difference may only exist in a meaningful way for a short period of time until others start experiencing the fakelore as folklore.

Or, as the Rev. Scott Wells might admonish us, "Give them not hell, but hope and courage." (Unless he wouldn't.)

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