Award-winning journalist Melanie Kirkpatrick, a former Wall Street Journal editorial page deputy editor, explores the Thanksgiving story we all learned in grade school, and far beyond. She digs into the political, culinary and cultural history of America’s oldest tradition. She reflects on the holiday’s significance in the immigrant experience and its role in helping to develop and define American generosity.
She even unearths the long-forgotten story of the “Godmother of Thanksgiving” — a longtime advocate whose fierce determination led to the creation of Thanksgiving as we know it today.
Drawing on historical documents, private correspondence, newspaper articles, expert interviews and cookbooks, she discovers a rich history spanning four centuries.
While the rites and rituals of Thanksgiving have evolved over the centuries, the essence of the holiday remains the same: family and friends feasting together in a spirit of gratitude, neighborliness and hospitality.
“Thanksgiving” is available Oct. 11 through Encounter Books.
Recently I had the pleasure of chatting with Melanie Kirkpatrick about the enduring traditions of Thanksgiving and why she hopes her book gives us a deeper appreciation of the holiday and what it has meant to generations of Americans.
Melanie Kirkpatrick’s “Thanksgiving: The Holiday at the Heart of the American Experience”
Liz at gThankYou: What inspired you to write this book?
Melanie Kirkpatrick: Like so many Americans, I’ve always loved Thanksgiving. Over the past couple of years, as I’ve told people I’m working on a book about Thanksgiving, the reply almost invariably is, ‘Oh, it’s my favorite holiday!’ So, there are a lot of fans of the holiday out there. But what specifically inspired me was connected with September 11th. I was in downtown New York at the time and saw the towers fall. And shortly afterwards, I picked up a copy of William Bradford’s book “Of Plymouth Plantation.” As Thanksgiving approached, I skipped ahead to the Thanksgiving section — which is only about 100 words; it’s very, very short. Somehow the connection with September 11, with being in New York City and in New York that year — people really focused on Thanksgiving. It was a special moment for us. I was working at the Wall Street Journal at the time. I wrote a couple of articles on Thanksgiving for the Op-Ed page, and then when I retired from the Journal, I thought, ‘Oh gee, this is a book I want to write!’ Nobody had done it. I began to research the holiday, and it took me about two years to put the whole thing together. I am really glad that after all these years I finally did it!
gTY: It’s interesting that nobody previously has done the research you’ve done to pull together the whole Thanksgiving story.
MK: Well, if you go to the websites of the Plimouth Plantation or Pilgrim Hall Museum, there’s a tremendous amount of information there, and then there’ve been a couple of academic books about the holiday. But this is the first book for a general audience — or at least general audience over the age of eight! There are a lot of kids’ books out there.
gTY: Why do you think Thanksgiving is at the heart of the American experience?
MK: Thanksgiving plays a role in some of our most seminal events, starting with the first permanent settlement in New England. A lot of the ideas for our liberty and our system of government came out of these early settlements. Thanksgiving is, of course, associated with the Pilgrims. But I do in the book have a chapter devoted to what you might call ‘competitors’ for the title of ‘First Thanksgiving.’ There are a number of other places in the country where Thanksgivings were celebrated before the Pilgrims arrived in Massachusetts: Texas, Florida, Virginia. And of course the Native American celebrations of Thanksgiving are also precursors to the holiday.
Fast-forward to the Civil War, and the first of what became the modern series of Thanksgiving celebrations was called by Lincoln during the height of the war. He called it for all Americans, not just for those who lived in the North. So that’s another seminal event.
Thanksgiving also traveled with Americans, especially New Englanders, as they settled the rest of the country. It was a unifying force and helped to build community as the holiday was taken West. In the 20th Century, Thanksgiving has been associated with World War II. We always think about our soldiers fighting wars overseas and providing for them for the holiday.
It also is very much associated with immigrants. It’s a holiday that new immigrants really grab onto and take as their own. Every new generation of immigrants has taken on Thanksgiving.
Thanksgiving is also linked to the very strong American tradition of generosity and personal generosity. It’s the beginning of the giving season today, but I was able to trace the link between generosity and helping the poor at Thanksgiving to 1636. I found the first mention of people who were celebrating Thanksgiving including the poor and reaching out to them to help them be part of the celebration as well.
gTY: Gratitude is the foundation of the Thanksgiving holiday. How has Thanksgiving gratitude changed over the centuries, if at all, and why is it so enduring?
MK: The essence of Thanksgiving has remained the same for almost 400 years and gratitude, as you say, is the watchword of the day. What’s changed is the focus on religion. What we call the first Thanksgiving, the event that took place after the harvest of 1621 and the feast with the Wampanoag Indians — a Pilgrim would not have called that a “thanksgiving.” For Pilgrims, thanksgiving meant a day spent in worship. It was followed often by a communal meal, but it was very much a religious day.
It quickly grew into a celebration that also included family and feasting, but attendance at church or at another house of worship was very much a part of the day until really the middle of the 20th Century. Not many Americans today actually go to church on the day, but my research has shown that many people do give thanks around their own family table, and if there’s one day a year that people will say grace, it is on Thanksgiving Day.
gTY: Why do you think the concept of gratitude, and coming together as one family, is so enduring?
MK: It’s impressed on the American spirit. What it means to be American includes generosity. I think one of the saddest images in American cultural life would be the person who’s alone on Thanksgiving Day. On Thanksgiving Day, the definition of family is very elastic — it includes everybody in your circle. If there’s a single person at work who doesn’t have a place to go for the holiday, it’s taken for granted that one of his colleagues will ask him to join his or her family for dinner. It’s built into our DNA after all these years!
gTY: Thanksgiving is one of the first American traditions that immigrants learn about and embrace. Why do you think it continues to resonate so deeply with immigrants and immigrant children?
MK: In the case of the children I interviewed, a number of them had a very personal connection to the holiday because the pilgrim’s journey to religious freedom was very personal for them. When these kids come to the United States in part for religious reasons and they discover this holiday and that some of the first Americans came here for similar reasons, they really adopt it as their own.
I also think the food aspect is very appealing to many people. America is such a rich country, and Thanksgiving is about feasting. The idea of sitting down and eating this enormous turkey is new to most people. Turkey isn’t that widespread in most parts of the world. It’s new, it’s exciting, it’s an expression of their new lives.
And third, I think the idea of giving thanks is profoundly important to immigrants. They came here because they chose to come here, and it’s an opportunity to give thanks for their new lives and the opportunities that lie ahead of them.
gTY: For generations, employers have been giving turkeys to employees as a Thanksgiving “Thank You.” Why do you think this tradition has been so popular, and did you come across any interesting history about this tradition in your research?
MK: Thanksgiving is about community. Family is probably the first community all of us know and are part of, but work is another incredibly important community. Thanksgiving is a holiday that every worker here in the country can share in, regardless of their ethnic background or their religion. Many Americans celebrate Christmas, but not every American does. Thanksgiving is different. It’s something for everybody.
I can’t tell you when the custom of employers giving gifts of turkeys to their employees began exactly, but there’s one theory, which is that it began in the middle of the 19th Century. The inspiration came from Charles Dickens and his short story, “A Christmas Carol,” about Ebenezer Scrooge. At the end of the story, you may remember, Scrooge wakes up from a sleep in which he’s seeing these various angels telling him his unfortunate future. He decides to become a new man. The first thing he does is open the window and find out it’s Christmas Day. He sees a boy walking down the street and asks him to go buy the biggest turkey at the nearby butcher and take it to his employee, Bob Cratchit. So that’s one theory of how the tradition of giving turkeys to employees at holiday-time got started.
By the middle of the 19th Century, the turkey had become the standard fare. Everybody had turkey for Thanksgiving. It was traditional. But it was not affordable for a lot of people. So I think the tradition of giving a turkey to the less fortunate took hold for that reason as well. It was a very special meal.
I found newspaper stories from around the turn of the 20th Century that would offer Thanksgiving menus. The traditional menu of course had a turkey in it and a lot of other foods that you and I would be familiar with. But they also offered a menu for people who couldn’t afford turkey, suggesting that they might like to have a chicken pie instead. That was cheaper. Or beef, which was also cheaper than turkey.
I think that tradition of giving this very special holiday treat to employees, all of whom could appreciate it, was enhanced by these traditions.
gTY: When you grew up, what did you enjoy most about the Thanksgiving holiday?
MK: I liked the anticipation of all gathering together for a very special meal. I can still see my grandmother holding that platter with a turkey on it. I loved walking into the dining room and seeing the special china and the silver and the crystal. There was always a beautiful centerpiece on the center of the table. It wasn’t an ordinary meal, it was very special. And being together with my entire family, everyone dressed up in their holiday best, was very special, too.
gTY: What message do you hope readers will take away from your book?
MK: What I aimed to do with this book was make people feel proud of our Thanksgiving holiday, and know more about it, because we really don’t know a whole lot about it. I have a whole chapter on the development of football with Thanksgiving, for example, and another chapter on generosity and Thanksgiving. I’m hoping that people will come away from the book thinking that it has enhanced their holiday experience and that they’ll share it with others. At the back of the book, I have a number of short readings from over the course of 400 years about Thanksgiving — most of them from famous Americans, such as Benjamin Franklin or Abraham Lincoln, and then some fun ones from people like Mark Twain or F. Scott Fitzgerald. I hope that readers will open that section on Thanksgiving Day and read some of them aloud around the Thanksgiving table. Similarly, I have historic recipes at the back of the book, including a recipe for how to roast a turkey that I think you would find especially interesting. My aim is that people will gain a deeper appreciation of the holiday and what it has meant to many generations of Americans.
gTY: Interestingly, for all we know about Thanksgiving, I imagine not many of us know about ‘Thanksgiving’s Godmother.’
MK: Right! Thanksgiving’s godmother is a remarkable woman by the name Sarah Josepha Hale, one of the country’s greatest editors and one of the country’s very influential feminists. In the 19th Century, she was editor of a magazine called Godey’s Lady’s Book, which was the best-selling, most widely circulated magazine in the country. And she loved Thanksgiving. She saw Thanksgiving as a way to unify a country that was splitting apart over the issue of slavery.
So she started a campaign in the pages of Godey’s Lady’s Book in the 1840s trying to encourage the celebration of Thanksgiving throughout the country and offering recipes, too, because she knew that a shared meal was part of the celebration. Outside of Godey’s Lady’s Book, she would write letters to influential figures, from governors to leading business people and then to every president of the United States, until finally, Lincoln read the letter that she wrote to him and decided to call for a national Thanksgiving. Up to that point, all of the states had Thanksgivings but they weren’t coordinated in any way. Lincoln decided that there would be a National Day of Thanksgiving and he issued a proclamation. That was how our modern-day Thanksgiving came into being.
To learn more about Melanie Kirkpatrick and her book, “Thanksgiving: The Holiday at the Heart of the American Experience,” visit her website, MelanieKirkpatrick.com.
Celebrate Workplace Gratitude on Thanksgiving (and Every Day!)
Gratitude is the foundation of our shared holiday of Thanksgiving. And gratitude is key to employee happiness, motivation and loyalty in the workplace. It’s more than handing out compliments: gratitude goes deeper and creates a bond. Gratitude lets employees know why their work matters.
This Thanksgiving season, share your gratitude with your workplace family with a sincere note of appreciation and the gift everyone loves, a turkey! At gThankYou, we make it easy for you so you can spend time on what really matters: sharing your gratitude with employees.
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