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Western Press Review: U.S. Thanksgiving Holiday--History, Myth And Feast

  • Don Hill



Prague, 28 November 1996 (RFE/RL) -- Citizens of the United States celebrate their national Thanksgiving Day holiday today, the fourth Thursday in November. As in fall festivals in many lands, one universal feature of the celebration is a feast. But in the United States, history and myth have imbued the holiday with patriotic overtones -- recalling the early (1620) settlement at Plymouth in what now is the U.S. state of Massachusetts by Puritans seeking to escape religious prosecution in England. Following is a sampling of U.S. press commentary:

SEATTLE POST-INTELLIGENCER: Never mind that the children who ate together at Plymouth were killing one another years later

Scott Maier writes: "As generations before them, (U.S.) school children this week dressed as Pilgrims, pasted feathers to paper turkey cutouts, and enacted the story of the first Thanksgiving at Plymouth. But many also commemorated Thanksgiving in ways that go beyond traditional rituals. From collecting food for the homeless to writing parents letters of appreciation, from taking a virtual tour of Plymouth Plantation on the Internet to preparing a historically correct holiday meal, kids are getting new lessons about the meaning of Thanksgiving."

He writes: "Despite its historic underpinnings, Thanksgiving almost from its beginning has been subject to myths and re-interpretation. Festivals honoring the harvest has been held for centuries by Native Americans (Indians), but the nation's official first Thanksgiving is considered the historic 1621 meal celebrated sometime in autumn (nobody knows exactly when) at Plymouth. School children long have been taught the first Thanksgiving marks a celebration of Indian and settler cooperation. Never mind that the children who ate together at Plymouth were killing one another years later."

WASHINGTON POST: President Lincoln proclaimed Thanksgiving a national holiday

Guy Gugliotta comments: "In the old days, in the really old days, the Pilgrims with the black outfits prayed together, then gathered with the Wampanoags (northeastern America Indian tribe) to eat lobster, clams and 'a great store of wild turkeys."

He writes: "(The first U.S. president George) Washington made the first presidential proclamation in 1791. (President) John Adams continued the tradition, but (President Thomas) Jefferson, the best writer of the three, dropped it after a couple of years. There followed a long hiatus. Then, in the 1820s, Sarah Josepha Hale, editor of Ladies Magazine, and later Godey's womens' magazine, started pestering presidents about the need for a single national Thanksgiving Day, instead of leaving it up to states. Finally in 1863, (President) Abraham Lincoln heard the call and proclaimed Thanksgiving as the last Thursday in November, where it has remained -- with a couple of exceptions -- ever since."

BOSTON GLOBE: Some historians worry schools are giving the Pilgrims short shrift

The paper carries an article on modern ways of thinking about the holiday, by Kate Zernike, who writes: "Even in Plymouth, famed for the first Thanksgiving, the public schools' social studies curriculum now dictates that students learn about Native Americans for a year before they start on the Pilgrims." Zernike says: "When many (of today's) teachers were in elementary school, they had textbooks that portrayed Indians as the people who might skin your scalp. And they say they still have to work to erase that image."

"Old or plundering or inept, the Pilgrims played a major role in settling this country. Some historians worry schools may be giving them short shrift. They also say we may be exchanging one stereotype for another. The Native Americans, after all, were fighting plenty of their own wars before the Pilgrims arrived."

SAN FRANCISCO EXAMINER: America has all but eliminated horrible class and status distinctions

Bernard Kaplan writes from Paris: "My experience has been that European business people, journalists and diplomats who really get to know the (United States) invariably admire it. The more time they spend in America, the more favorable they tend to become. Those Europeans who treat it with contempt are almost always those who have hardly or, indeed, never visited it."

Kaplan says: "Now, just in time for Thanksgiving, a British journalist who has spent the last six years reporting from America and is about to leave on a new assignment has composed a resounding song of praise of the United States and its people.

Michael Prowse's article in London's Financial Times is entitled 'A Deep Debt of Gratitude.' Although he writes for one of the world's leading business newspapers, he is less concerned in this column by America's economic successes than by what he sees as the strengths and virtues of American society."

Kaplan goes on: "Prowse's gratitude to Americans, he adds, stems partly from the warm hospitality they have shown him, but goes beyond these personal encounters. Kaplan writes: "Living in the United States, (Prowse) says, provided first-hand experience of 'the freedoms guaranteed to its people (which are) undreamt of elsewhere. (America) has all but eliminated the horrible class and status distinctions which still disfigure European and Asian society.' "

BOSTON GLOBE: Thanksgiving and Chanukah are rooted in the triumph of belief over persecution

And Jeff Jacoby comments: "For those with the good fortune to be both American and Jewish, not one but two holidays are at hand. As the grace of Thanksgiving fills the land, Chanukah waits in the wings. The menorah's first flame, ushering in the eight-day festival, will be lit one week from tonight."

The Globe writer continues: "The Pilgrims who gathered for the first Thanksgiving feast in 1621 had little enough to be grateful for. Puritan separatists from East Anglia, they had been severely persecuted by the established Church of England. In 1608, desperate to live in a land where they could worship as they thought right, the separatists made their way to Holland, then as now a tolerant place. But life in Holland was difficult, too. There were many fears, above all that Holland would be conquered by Spain. That would bring the Inquisition, and terrors even worse than those of King James. And so the little band of believers took a step fraught with risk: They sailed to America."

Jacoby writes: "But Chanukah and Thanksgiving are not about politics. Nor are they about turkey or football or presents. We may have secularized them and materialized them, but under the tinsel and the gift-wrapping, these holidays are about religion. Each is rooted in the triumph of belief over persecution."

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