×

Fill out the brief form below for access to the free report.

  • George W. Bush Institute

    Content & Resources

  • Through our three Impact Centers -- Domestic Excellence, Global Leadership, and our Engagement Agenda -- we focus on developing leaders, advancing policy, and taking action to solve today’s most pressing challenges.

I'm interested in dates between:
--

Issues

I have minutes to read today:

Programs & Issues

Issues

Publication Type
Date Range
I'm interested in dates between:
--
Reading Time

I have minutes to read today:

Melanie Kirkpatrick: Thanksgiving is the Ultimate American Holiday

November 22, 2016 12 minute Read by Lindsay Lloyd
Kirkpatrick, author of the new book, "Thanksgiving: The Holiday at the Heart of the American Experience," and a member of the Bush Institute’s Human Freedom Advisory Council, explains how her interest in Thanksgiving started after 9/11.

Melanie Kirkpatrick is the author of the new book, Thanksgiving: The Holiday at the Heart of the American Experience.  A member of the Bush Institute’s Human Freedom Advisory Council and a senior fellow with the Hudson Institute, Kirkpatrick explains in this interview how her interest in Thanksgiving started after 9/11. That’s when she, like many of us, explored more deeply what it means to be an American. She also explains how Thanksgiving pointed the way to the diverse nation we have become. And she describes how the holiday expresses the nation’s gratitude for our personal freedoms.

What inspired you to write a book about Thanksgiving?

I first became interested in Thanksgiving right after September 11th, 2001.  I was in downtown Manhattan that day and watched the Towers fall.  After the terrorist attacks, I, like many Americans, became interested in exploring more closely what it means to be an American. 

I decided to read Of Plymouth Plantation, which is William Bradford’s monumental study, a journal of the Pilgrims’ journey from England to Holland, then on the Mayflower, and then the first few decades in Plymouth.  He was their longtime governor and when I came to the section on Thanksgiving – it was only about 150 words – I was really taken.

The section really provided a lot of comfort and reassurance to me on Thanksgiving Day in 2001. His description was very similar to the Thanksgiving holiday we celebrate today, with a focus on fellowship, faith, and all around good cheer.

It’s America’s oldest tradition and some people have tried to “PC-ify” Thanksgiving, but as I researched it, I found that wasn’t really the case.  What we know – the myths are essentially true.  It was a peaceful time, the Indians and the Pilgrims were good neighbors, and they pointed the way to the diverse nation that we would become.

You write about how there’s always been a struggle or a conversation about what Thanksgiving should be.  Today, we see that with Black Friday creeping into Thanksgiving Day. Is this a religious holiday or a secular one?

My conclusion is that it’s a religious holiday, but it is that rarest of religious holidays. It is one that Americans of any faith and also of no faith can celebrate.  Gratitude is the number one attribute of the holiday.  People really do take time to step back and give thanks for their blessings, both personal and national.

My conclusion is that it’s a religious holiday, but it is that rarest of religious holidays. It is one that Americans of any faith and also of no faith can celebrate.  Gratitude is the number one attribute of the holiday. 

There have been controversies over the centuries.  One that surprised me the most was in 1789, the first Congress debated whether the Constitution allowed the President to issue a proclamation calling for a national Thanksgiving. 

Members of Congress objected on two grounds.  One was religious.  They had just debated the First Amendment, so the concept of freedom of worship was fresh in their minds.  Some argued that since Thanksgiving was religious in nature that it fell outside the authority of a President. 

The other objection had to do with federalism.  The objectors said that a President didn’t have the constitutional authority to proclaim a Thanksgiving, that the power belonged to the governors of the individual states.

That was one controversy that I found really interesting.

In the end, Washington, wise as he was in so many matters, did issue a proclamation calling for a national day of Thanksgiving.  It was the first proclamation issued by a President.  But then he sent it to the governors of the states with a cover note requesting them to issue this in their states.  He paid attention to the debate in Congress and wasn’t going to order anybody to mark a national Thanksgiving.  He requested it.

Washington’s first Thanksgiving proclamation set the tone in that Thanksgiving was religious, but not sectarian.  It was something a Christian, a Muslim, a Jew could all embrace.

Exactly.  Beginning with Lincoln in 1863, almost every President has followed Washington’s example on that score.  Thanksgiving proclamations by Presidents have almost always been ecumenical.

That wasn’t so with the governors – as the Thanksgiving holiday evolved.  Some gubernatorial proclamations were sectarian.  There was one in South Carolina in 1844 that was heavily Christian, so much so that the Jews of Charleston objected and did not celebrate the Thanksgiving.

One thing that was surprising to me and probably surprising to a lot of people is that the traditional first Thanksgiving in Plymouth wasn’t actually the first one.  Can you talk about some of the other thanksgivings that occurred before Plymouth?

It was a lot of fun to research this.  There were a couple in Texas, a couple in Florida, one in Virginia, and one in Maine.  These are prior to the Pilgrims.

Explorers to our shores would land and this being a religious age, an age of prayer, one of the first things they did was to hold a thanksgiving religious celebration, Catholic or Protestant, giving thanks for their safe arrival.  A couple of them included the Native Americans that they had met.  A couple of them included communal meals with them.  Others were strictly religious. 

This became an issue in Texas in the 1990s when Governor Ann Richards issued a proclamation saying the first Thanksgiving had occurred in April 1598, prior to the Pilgrims.  She then sent a letter to the governor of Massachusetts, trying to get a response. 

But the broader point is that the tradition of giving thanks, the tradition of expressing gratitude to God, was certainly engraved in our culture.  These earlier thanksgivings had no influence on the development of our national holiday, except to the extent that they encouraged the tradition of giving thanks. 

My research also showed that Native Americans also gave thanks long before Europeans came to our shores.  Those were the first thanksgivings in America.

Was there a moment when we moved from this more general pattern of giving thanks for safe passage or good harvests to Thanksgiving with a capital “T,” if you will, to the holiday that we know today?

In 1639, the Colony of Connecticut took a big step toward the holiday we know today when the civil authorities decided to name a day of thanksgiving for general blessings.  That was important for two reasons.

First, it was the civil authorities that proclaimed the day of thanksgiving, not the religious authorities.  And second, they focused on general blessings, continuing blessings, not a specific beneficence, like a good harvest or rainfall or a military victory.  And that was a step toward the holiday we know today.

This was controversial too.  Some theologians or religiously-minded people would argue that if you gave thanks for general blessings that it would encourage people to take the holiday for granted, that it would be better to do it for specific blessings.  But by the end of the 17th century, even the last holdout, Massachusetts, proclaimed a day of general thanksgiving.

I was really struck in the opening pages of your book about how recent immigrants to America have embraced Thanksgiving as their own.  Do they identify with the Pilgrims’ story? Do they see themselves in this very old ritual?

I had a remarkable visit with a group of immigrant teenagers that I write about in the book. Their understanding of Thanksgiving really struck me. I paid a visit to Newcomers High School in Queens, New York.  It’s a public high school in New York City for immigrant teenagers. 

I met with three classes and we talked about what Thanksgiving meant to them.  These were all kids who were about to celebrate their first or second Thanksgiving.  What struck me is that the kids had a very personal understanding of what Thanksgiving was about and why the Pilgrims came to America.

I met with three classes and we talked about what Thanksgiving meant to them.  These were all kids who were about to celebrate their first or second Thanksgiving.  What struck me is that the kids had a very personal understanding of what Thanksgiving was about and why the Pilgrims came to America.

Some of the kids described how their families had come here, seeking freedom of worship in some cases; in other cases, seeking better lives for their families, which was exactly similar to the Pilgrims.  They were divided into two groups – religious Puritans who came here to seek freedom of worship and those who were less religious, who came here as a way to create better lives.

One story in particular really stuck with me:  a boy from Tibet, a country that hasn’t formally existed since 1950 when China invaded it, told me he was like the Pilgrims. He came here seeking to practice Buddhism.  He and his family had difficulties worshiping, practicing Buddhism in China.

Then a girl spoke up.    She was from Egypt and said she was a Copt, a Christian, and that was the reason that her family came to the United States. 

I left Newcomers High School thinking that these newcomers to our shores really had a personal understanding of the meaning of the holiday.

You write about an interesting, but largely unknown figure, that of Sarah Hale.  What is her importance in the context of Thanksgiving?

Sarah Josepha Hale is often called the “Godmother of Thanksgiving.” She was an editor in the 19th century of the most widely circulated national publication, called Godey’s Lady’s Book.  She was a New Englander.  In the lead-up to the Civil War, she began campaigning in the pages of Godey’s Lady’s Book for a national thanksgiving, thinking that it was a way to unify the country when it was splitting over the issue of slavery.

In the lead-up to the Civil War, [Sarah Hale] began campaigning in the pages of Godey’s Lady’s Book for a national thanksgiving, thinking that it was a way to unify the country when it was splitting over the issue of slavery.

 In addition to publishing editorials, short stories and fiction about Thanksgiving, and recipes for Thanksgiving, she also conducted a letter-writing campaign.  She wrote to hundreds of public figures, encouraging them to call for a national Thanksgiving.   She wrote to all the Presidents as the years passed.

Nobody heeded her until 1863, in the middle of the Civil War, when Americans were killing one another, when Lincoln decided to issue the first in what is now considered the modern day Thanksgiving proclamations.  In 1863, he called for a national Thanksgiving that was widely celebrated. 

Every president since then has issued a proclamation.  Lincoln chose the last Thursday of November as the date because that was the day that George Washington had proclaimed our first national Thanksgiving in 1789. 


Author

Lindsay Lloyd
Lindsay Lloyd

Lindsay Lloyd is the Deputy Director of the Human Freedom Initiative at the George W. Bush Institute, where he manages original research and programmatic efforts to advance freedom and democracy in the world. Lindsay currently leads the Bush Institute’s Freedom in North Korea project, which raises awareness of human rights violations in North Korea, proposes new policy solutions, and engages leaders to help improve the lives of the North Korean people.  Lindsay is also responsible for managing the Freedom Collection, a multimedia archive that documents the stories of nonviolent freedom advocates from around the word. 

Prior to joining the Bush Institute, Lindsay served for 16 years at the International Republican Institute (IRI), most recently as senior advisor for policy.   Previously, he was IRI’s regional director for Europe and co-director of the regional program for Central and Eastern Europe, which was based in Slovakia.  At IRI, Lindsay worked with candidates, elected officials, political parties, and civil society activists to develop lasting democratic institutions.

Before joining IRI, Lindsay worked for several members and the leadership of the U.S. House of Representatives, as political director for a political action committee, and for Jack Kemp’s 1988 presidential campaign. He graduated from Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service. 

Full Bio