Thanksgiving: The Red-Headed Step-Child of Holidays

Posted: November 28, 2013 by Sam in Animation, Editorial, Movies, Television
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This was previously posted at Word of the Nerd on November 16th, 2012

Let’s be honest Americans, Thanksgiving rarely pops up on our radar as a thing anymore. Sure we get a lot of commercials telling us how to make sure this year’s Thanksgiving is the best one ever with the most perfectly cooked turkey in the history of cooked turkeys, but we all know the ugly truth.

Thanksgiving is essentially the autumn palet cleanser of Halloween that gets us ready for Christmas (even though most retail outlets have been getting their Christmas on since August). No one’s going for that sexy turkey costume and none of us are clamoring for harvest decor that smells vaguely of pumpkin. Other than the fact that we get a federally approved four-day weekend during which we stuff our faces full of food, what exactly is the point of Thanksgiving? How do we, as Americans, perceive this holiday that straddles the line between the religious and secular?

And for the record, yes I know other countries have their own Day of Thanksgiving. But I live in America, so American Thanksgiving is what I’m gonna talk about.

Well, kids, I’m about to drop some history on you, so strap in and hold tight because we’re going all the way back to The Protestant Reformation! Yes, The Protestant Reformation, a time of religious turmoil as Martin Luther nailed his list of grievances on the doors of a Catholic church in protest of their corrupt practices. The English Reformation, one of many proxy reformations, under Henry VIII made sure to reduce the amount of church holidays that prevented people from working and called for expensive feasts. What can I say, we Catholics like a good spread. But even within the reformers, there was a little sect of radicals known as The Puritans who wanted all church holidays eliminated and replaced with Days of Fasting or Days of Thanksgiving in the case of special events deemed acts of providence by the Big Guy upstairs. Pretty much anything could call for a Day of Thanksgiving. Hell, The Gunpowder Plot in 1605, better known as Guy Fawkes Day, was celebrated with a Day of Thanksgiving!

The first “official” Thanksgiving, basically the feast by which we base the entire holiday in America, was celebrated by the Pilgrims in 1621, though the documentation is shoddy at best. In honor of the first harvest in the new world, the Pilgrims supposedly invited the Indians who’d shown them how to survive in the harsh climate of Massachusetts and gave thanks for their good fortune…before committing mass genocide, conversions, and generally destroying the indigenous peoples’ way of life. ‘Merica!

But the First Thanksgiving was not the last Thanksgiving as annual celebrations occurred in the colonies as early as 1623. In the decades following, it was not unheard of for secular and religious leaders to give proclamations of Thanksgiving. Many were given by the Founding Fathers after favorable battles during The Revolution with the first declaration of a national day of Thanksgiving occurring in 1789 by President George Washington and the joint efforts of the first Congress, though it was never established as an annual event. Roughly eighty years later, President Lincoln declared the date of Thanksgiving as the last Thursday in November in 1863. But there was that whole pesky Civil War thing going on, so the other half of the nation below the Mason-Dixon Line didn’t exactly recognize the proclamation. Not until the 1870s, in the midst of Reconstruction, would the date be set and even then, it wasn’t solidified until President Franklin Delano Roosevelt made it the second-to-last Thursday in November when a fluke five Thursday November occurred in 1939.

So there’s your history lesson for the day, but what exactly does Thanksgiving represent in the grand scheme of holiday celebrations? We’d like to believe it’s about getting together with your family (biological or otherwise) and sharing a great feast of a meal together at the table while showing thanks and gratitude for all of the blessings in your life. At least, that’s what Hallmark and most commercials want you to experience by playing off your childhood nostalgia of some idyllic memory you can never recreate! Yes, cynical Sam is cynical. But that doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy getting together with my family. As frustrating as the holiday season is, that moment when the food’s finally ready, everyone gathers at the table or sits around the television in the living room and starts eating is very calming. Yes, everyone’s stuffing their face so no one’s talking, but there’s a real sense of being together and enjoying the company of the people in your life that makes all of the bullshit of the previous year wash away even for the briefest of moments. But despite those feelings of calm and clarity, when we look at Thanksgiving, we pretty much look at it as the gateway to the shopping spree that is Christmas.

Think about it. If you’re not watching the Detroit Lions play their annual game, you’re more than likely watching the Macy’s Day Parade. Prior to Thanksgiving, through most of November, we’re bombarded with commercials from every retail chain imaginable telling us that we have to prepare for the Black Friday sales that mark the beginning of the shopping frenzy of Christmas that causes social anxiety, claustrophobia, and probably resulted in one or two casualties over a half-priced pair of Gucci pumps. Oddly enough, there’s some debate over whether or not FDR changed the date of Thanksgiving at the behest of Macy’s in order to get more people to shop before Christmas.

The media isn’t any better at endearing us towards the holiday. Thanksgiving, as portrayed in movies and television, is often depicted as a time when family’s get together so some kind of revelation can be made and everyone can yell at each other. Popular culture really loves holiday movies, but Thanksgiving movies, movies featuring a scene during Thanksgiving, or special Thanksgiving-themed episodes of television make it akin to a special kind of torture experienced by every member of the family. By comparison, Christmas movies usually skew towards the magic and whimsy of the holiday, focusing on the important things in life that bring a family together. Thanksgiving seems to be the holiday that tears everyone apart. You’d almost think it’d be the opposite. Christmas practically screams forced joviality, unless you’re just a naturally happy person. Or a psychopath. Either way, it’s still a strange thing because the two holidays are separated by a month with the only difference between them really being the exchange of gifts. Hey, maybe that’s the answer! If we gave each other an actual, tangible gift instead of the comfort and love of family, maybe Thanksgiving wouldn’t have such a poor reception.

There are a couple of highlights when it comes to Thanksgiving in the media. Some personal favorites of mine are The Simpsons’ “Bart vs Thanksgiving”, The West Wing’s “Indians in the Lobby”, and “The Perfect Thanksgiving” from Titus. There’s also the very memorable episode of WKRP in Cincinnati called “Turkeys Away” where the station tries to promote itself during Thanksgiving by dropping turkeys out of a helicopter. I’ll just let this scene speak for itself:

And of course, let’s not forget the greatest Thanksgiving play ever, courtesy of The Addams Family Values:

That’s really the best of what’s out there in terms of Thanksgiving material roughly associated with the actual holiday. Keep in mind, the first clip was from 1978 and the second from 1993. In the 21st Century, what do we have to offer?

Yeah, that about sums it up.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone! And be sure to share your Thanksgiving traditions in the comments!

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