can’t see the forest

Happy Thanksgiving

Posted in American culture, holidays, Life, Lifestyle, Thanksgiving, USA by Curtis on 11/22/06

Here are two contrasting but ultimately complementary posts from favorite blogs on the subject of Thanksgiving.

Swimming amongst the majestic squid over at the inestimably awesome ol’ raincoaster blog, I found this excellent, biting, and highly appropriate Thanksgiving prayer from the inestimably awesome William S. Burroughs:

And from the truly wonderful Gracie at SamGail, a heartening message of personal gratitude and commitment to a better world from Rabbi Michael Lerner:

. . .I rejoice in the goodness of all that I am, of all that I have been able to experience, of the goodness of my family and friends, of all the amazing and wonderful people I have been blessed to meet or to encounter through their writing, art, and music. I’ve been blessed in all the bounty, wisdom, pleasure and joy, and even from the painful lessons and disappointments, that I have inherited from the universe and from my family and from all that I have come to experience and know. I am grateful for the generosity of the universe. And I renew my commitment to bring more love, more kindness, more open– heartedness, more non– violence, more peace, more social justice, more environmental sensitivity, and more gratitude into the life that I live, into my encounters with others, and into the world that I am helping to shape, and into the consciousness that I bring to each aspect of my life. . .

Thanksgiving is essentially a harvest festival. Such festivals have been a part of every farming culture from time immemorial.

The North American holiday, observed in late November in the US and in mid-October in Canada, is said to have its roots in a dinner held in the Virginia Colony on 4 December 1619. In 1621, the Plymouth colonists feasted with the Wampanoag—the event was symbolic if not wholly novel, since the tradition of the harvest festival existed in both cultures. By some accounts the Native Americans far outnumbered the English settlers at the dinner, so it is no small measure of goodwill that can be attributed therein to the real Americans.

Thanksgiving festivals were sporadically declared by US Presidents and state governors throughout the first century of the American republic. It was Abraham Lincoln who nationalized the holiday in 1863, during the Civil War, fixing it upon the last Thursday in November.

In 1939, Franklin D. Roosevelt moved Thanksgiving Day back by one week. This was done to give merchants more time to sell goods before Christmas—thanks be to God!! Pardon my cynicism. Some states refused to comply with his decree, and the US Congress intervened in 1941 by declaring that Thanksgiving would fall on the fourth Thursday in November—the last Thursday of the month in some years but the penultimate one in others.

Somewhere along the way, a rather tasteless tradition developed whereby the sitting US President is presented each year with several turkeys, some of whom are ‘pardoned’ while the remainder are cooked. This tradition would probably be more meaningful if the President were required to slaughter his own bird and to pen and feed the pardoned ones throughout the remainder of his term of office.

Since 1970, there has been at each Thanksgiving a National Day of Mourning protest held at Plymouth Rock, attended by Native Americans and others.

Each year at Thanksgiving I am grateful for my family and my friends, for the food we share, and for the peaceful if mentally troubled existence we are able to eke out for ourselves on this fair planet. It is hard not be thankful, staring up with a full belly at the immense, cold sea of stars mercifully framed by the horizon. That is my personal Thanksgiving.

But Thanksgiving is also an appalling display of mindless decadence and of waste—an uncontained, commercialized, and institutionalized self-congratulatory exhibition of the hypocritical one-sidedness of the American Dream.

I wish to each and all of you a peaceful and enjoyable holiday season. Let it also be a sincerely thoughtful one. I am reminded of a passage from the autobiography of the self-emancipated Maryland slave Frederick Douglass—he refers to Christmas, not to Thanksgiving, since in the Southern states Thanksgiving was curiously and widely shunned as a nod to Puritanical barbarism. It is not a difficult matter to connect the dots and to draw what I feel is an instructive, if irreverent, analogy:

From what I know of the effect of these holidays upon the slave, I believe them to be among the most effective means in the hands of the slaveholder in keeping down the spirit of insurrection. Were the slaveholders at once to abandon this practice, I have not the slightest doubt it would lead to an immediate insurrection among the slaves. These holidays serve as conductors, or safety-valves, to carry off the rebellious spirit of enslaved humanity. But for these, the slave would be forced up to the wildest desperation; and woe betide the slaveholder, the day he ventures to remove or hinder the operation of these conductors! . . .

. . .The holidays are part and parcel of the gross fraud, wrong, and inhumanity of slavery. They are professedly a custom established by the benevolence of the slaveholders; but I undertake to say, it is the result of selfishness, and one of the grossest frauds committed upon the down-trodden slave. They do not give the slaves this time because they would not like to have their work during its continuance, but because they know it would be unsafe to deprive them of it. This will be seen by the fact, that the slaveholders like to have their slaves spend those days just in such a manner as to make them as glad of their ending as of their beginning. Their object seems to be, to disgust their slaves with freedom, by plunging them into the lowest depths of dissipation. For instance, the slaveholders not only like to see the slave drink of his own accord, but will adopt various plans to make him drunk . . . So, when the holidays ended, we staggered up from the filth of our wallowing, took a long breath, and marched to the field—feeling, upon the whole, rather glad to go, from what our master had deceived us into a belief was freedom, back to the arms of slavery.


3 Responses

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  1. raincoaster said, on 11/23/06 at 12:08 am

    That is an outstanding and extremely relevant quote. Bread and circuses have long been with us, in all guises. In my past as a Greenpeace worker, I learned that quite a lot of the seemingly-weekly protests around Vancouver were sponsored by what amounted to government fronts, and I could not for the life of me imagine why. One day I was proposing a course of action long lost to the cobwebs of my mind when I realized that nobody would work with me because, by participating in these protests the urge to accomplish something was satisfied, and the populace remained complacent. It’s a bit like the Sedona Method, which brings you feelings of accomplishment and satisfaction without the bother of having to achieve anything.

    I don’t think I was truly cynical until that moment.

  2. Curtis said, on 11/23/06 at 1:31 am

    Yep, I think that would be enough to do me in.

    I had to look up the Sedona method, and it’s quite interesting. I sometimes wonder if the entire democratic process presently at our disposal isn’t in effect mostly a manifestation of that technique, which brings us back to your Jefferson quote. You’ll probably get a great kick out of this page. Just don’t click on anything when you get there. Yuck.


  3. Gracie said, on 11/23/06 at 2:24 pm

    Thanks, Curt! So glad you enjoyed it. :)

    It’s interesting to read the varying reactions we all experience during this time of year. I contemplated posting from the first chapter of Howard Zinn’s book, “A People’s History,” which always makes my blood boil but took a completely different direction for a change. I also liked your thoughts and raincoasters post, as well.

    I’m looking forward to your piece on Robert Fisk, one of the few journalists I’m willing to trust these days. At one point last spring, he was to speak in this country but wasn’t allowed entry so Amy Goodman interviewed him via satellite, I believe. It was one of the best yet horrifying descriptions of this nightmare in Iraq that I’ve heard yet. You would definitely want to catch it as Fisk also discusses his latest book so check out DN’s site if you haven’t heard this yet. It’s right up your alley.

    Sorry to hear you were also having problems with YOUR computer, isn’t it fun? Ouch! Ouch! Ouch!

    Happy Thanksgiving!

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