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The Biography of an American Holiday

James W. Baker

Publication Year: 2010

In this, the first in-depth study of the most American of holidays, James Baker sweeps away lingering myths and misconceptions to show how this celebration day was born and grew to be an essential part of our national spirit. Thanksgiving: The Biography of an American Holiday opens with an overview of the popular mythos of the holiday before discussing its possible religious and cultural precedents. This classic Yankee holiday is examined in historical and contemporary detail that embraces everything from proclamations, sermons, and local and regional traditions to family reunions, turkey dinners, and recipes. Thanksgiving's evolving face is illustrated with charming and often revealing period prints that chart our changing attitudes: the influence of Victorian sentiment in Thanksgiving's development, Progressive utilitarianism, intellectual "debunking," patriotic wartime reclamation, and 1960s-era protest. Thanksgiving remains controversial up to the present day, as Mayflower descendants, Native Americans, and commercial exploiters compete for the American public's opinion of the holiday's contemporary significance and its future status. This is an intelligent and illuminating introduction to a beloved holiday and a fascinating cultural history of America and Americana.

Published by: University of New Hampshire Press

Series: Revisiting New England


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pp. c-i

Series Page

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p. ii-ii

Title Page

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pp. iii-vi


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pp. vii-viii

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Foreword: Thanksgiving in America

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pp. ix-xii

One of the most enduring and endearing of American images is the Thanksgiving holiday family dinner. The turkey, cranberry sauce, and the array of pies have attained nearly iconic status, and Norman Rockwell has provided a Saturday Evening Post fantasy of ordinary gratitude from which no one can escape and to which everyone aspires. Not for nothing...


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pp. xiii-xiv

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Introduction: A Thanksgiving Detective Story

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pp. 1-13

Thanksgiving Day! What a wealth of sentiment is evoked by this all- American holiday. The multitude of familiar images that spring to mind would require an American Dickens to do them justice: Intrepid, be-buckled Pilgrims and their dignified Indian neighbors sit down to dinner in the serenity of an eternally golden autumn afternoon. Radiant,...

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1: New England’s Puritan Holy Days

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pp. 14-30

The 1621 “First Thanksgiving” was referred to from time to time after 1841, but it did not begin to dislodge the holiday’s traditional locus in post-Revolutionary New England tradition until the turn of the twentieth century. There was, for example, no mention of the colonists in presidential proclamations until 1905, when Theodore Roosevelt...

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2: The Traditional New England Thanksgiving

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pp. 31-45

The new yearly Thanksgivings and Fast days did not begin in one colony and spread to the others but rather evolved simultaneously throughout the region. There was no single “First Annual Thanksgiving” or “First Annual Fast Day” that began an unbroken tradition for succeeding generations. According to William DeLoss Love, the fall...

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3: The Classic New England Thanksgiving Dinner

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pp. 46-61

We now come to the most renowned part of the New England Thanksgiving tradition, the dinner. In the early years of the nineteenth century, the church service and the dinner still shared top billing for the day, but the dinner would soon triumph and claim the primary role in the day’s festivities. The focal point of the dinner...

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4: The Nation Embraces Thanksgiving, 1780–1880

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pp. 62-77

The adoption of the Thanksgiving holiday outside New England was in part a result of the great Yankee exodus that occurred after the American Revolution. The war had brought debilitating debt and inflation to the small New England farmers and shopkeepers, a burden compounded by high state taxes by which local governments tried to recover...

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5: Nineteenth-Century Holiday Imagery in Literature and Art

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pp. 78-97

The national adoption of Thanksgiving would not have occurred without the efforts of expatriate New England advocates such as Godey’s editor Mrs. Sarah Josepha Hale and all the anonymous Yankees who worked to introduce the holiday in their respective towns and states. Their efforts to “sell the holiday” to the American people were...

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6: Enter the Pilgrims

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pp. 98-114

The Revolutionary War had been a signal break with the past, not least in the broken continuity of old customs. The years that followed brought more changes that further disrupted America’s social continuity.1 The rise of industrialism and dislocation of long-established communities in the era of railroads and steamships made many people...

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7: Pilgrims Are for Kids - Thanksgiving in the Progressive Classroom

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pp. 115-128

What Americans actually did on Thanksgiving changed very little after the mid–nineteenth century, except for a decline in church attendance and the introduction of football and, later, parades. Even today, the established sequence of family reunion, dinner, and leisure-time activities (including watching football games) repeats the...

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8: Imaging the Holiday

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pp. 129-144

While both conservative leaders and progressive reformers sought to unite the nation within a civic religion embodying patriotic pieties and a calendar of secular holidays, the burgeoning consumer culture at the end of the nineteenth century undertook to unite the American public for quite a different purpose. For commerce to prosper...

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9: Parades, Patriotism, and Consumption

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pp. 145-164

A new holiday event emerged in the 1920s—the Thanksgiving Day parade. Strictly speaking, Thanksgiving parades are not about Thanksgiving at all but Christmas, yet they do provide a Thanksgiving Day activity that is enjoyed by millions of Americans in person or on TV. Initiated by downtown department stores to signal the “official”...

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10: Consensus and Competition - The Postwar Thanksgiving

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pp. 165-182

After the war, America families continued to attend football games, prepare turkey dinners, and buy decorations to express holiday themes. The Hallmark Company and American Greetings Company produced several elaborate paper centerpieces for the dinner table illustrating the Thanksgiving theme, such as a pop-up...

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11: New Myths for Old—Thanksgiving under Siege

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pp. 183-200

The essentially peaceful nature of the Pilgrim and Wampanoag festival has been a central tenet of the American holiday since the “First Thanksgiving” achieved national prominence. Social harmony has played a fundamental role in the modern representation of Thanksgiving in art and literature and established the day as a model of egalitarian and...

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12: Thanksgiving Now, Then, and Forever

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pp. 201-218

Not all contemporary redefinitions of Thanksgiving have been negative or reactionary. Some have wanted to enhance the affirmative and progressive nature of the celebration. The holiday now has its own permanent memorial in the “Chapel of Thanksgiving” in Thanks-giving Square in Dallas, Texas. Opened in 1976, the chapel...

Appendix 1: A Thanksgiving Poem by Henry Bliss

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pp. 219-230

Appendix 2: Some Early Thanksgiving Recipes

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pp. 231-232

Appendix 3: United American Indians of New England Press Release (11 December 1997)

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pp. 233-234


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pp. 235-258


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pp. 259-266


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pp. 267-274

E-ISBN-13: 9781584658740
E-ISBN-10: 1584658746
Print-ISBN-13: 9781584658016

Page Count: 288
Publication Year: 2010

Series Title: Revisiting New England