William Thomas Mari

The First Thanksgiving

Beyond turkeys and touchdowns.

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With all these reminders, McKenzie helpfully calls us away from the use of "revisionist" as a pejorative for history we do not like. History is not received like Scripture. And the history of Thanksgiving was subject to lots of revision over the years, especially in the middle of the 19th century. The Pilgrim story, McKenzie points out, was not culturally convenient prior to and immediately after the Civil War, with the New England connection to the tradition quite strong, abolitionist governors using their Thanksgiving proclamations to decry slavery, and Native Americans not especially respected.

After the war, however, a long process of altering the Pilgrims' legacy reached fulfillment in the secularization of Thanksgiving. Ironically, this came about with the emphasis on the holiday as a time for family gathering by the early 20th century. McKenzie, in looking at hundreds of public political statements about Thanksgiving since the end of the 1600s, including those by U.S. presidents, shows how the Pilgrims gradually but seemingly inevitably become attached to broadly "American" values, subsumed into an image not of their own creation.

Whereas going to church was a big part of Thanksgiving in the antebellum period—McKenzie quotes a young boy's complaint that Thanksgiving was "rather an awful festival … very much like Sunday, except for the enormous dinner"—that changed within about a century to a full-fledged emphasis on more earthly delights, and the Pilgrims as ideal immigrants. Now, McKenzie says, the Pilgrim story is regarded as a romanticized example of intercultural engagement.

With this in mind, Christians should remember their interpretative limits: our understanding of what Thanksgiving is has been constructed by the generations that have preceded us. And yet history for the person of faith is not just a cultural toolkit, useful only in how it can unite us (or divide us). Neither is it necessarily "Providential," in which every act has a clear "why" associated with it.

McKenzie argues for an alternative, for the practice of history done Christianly. As an adverb, it involves the idea that we can know, in the most general sense, that God is at work in history, but we cannot, without risking dangerous presumption, identify specific intentions on God's part. Thanksgiving is his long case in point. Combining knowledge with humility should be our goal in the study of the past. Refraining from self-flattering moral judgment, we should pursue history as an opportunity for moral reflection, looking to what figures in the past say about their own time, and for all time.

William Thomas Mari is a PhD student in communications at the University of Washington.

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