The holiday was actually created by a New England writer opposed to the slaveholding south
Even those who havent seen the flurry of thinkpieces about how to talk to your family this Thanksgiving dont need a crystal ball to know that at dinner tables around the country, the holiday is going to be awkward.
Usually, theres just that one drunk uncle who likes to spout politics. This year, everyone is going to be the drunk uncle, and Donald Trumps recent, contentious victory will surely be rehashed from every conceivable angle. You may wish to go easy on any foods that can be easily weaponized at the dinner table.
Food fights are, of course, the opposite of what Thanksgiving is supposed to represent. Most Americans have been raised on the Norman Rockwell ideal of the holiday. Year after year, schoolchildren are taught the stories of the brave Pilgrims, Squanto, and that harmonious First Thanksgiving where the settlers thanked the natives for all their help.
However, the Pilgrims have almost nothing to do with our national holiday, which was actually a retroactive attempt to inculcate New Englands abolitionist values across a deeply divided nation. What we are celebrating when we sit down for dinner is the cultural supremacy of the what today we might call blue states over the red states. That is, the holiday isnt about putting aside differences; its about instilling liberal values on an illiberal nation.
We owe our modern holiday to a writer named Sarah Josepha Hale, a magazine editor, novelist and poet (she penned Mary Had a Little Lamb).
Hale was born in New Hampshire in 1788 and grew up celebrating Thanksgiving which did not commemorate the Pilgrims as a regional holiday. In her first novel, 1827s Northwood, Hale devoted multiple chapters to Thanksgiving; at one point, the character Squire opines that Thanksgiving will eventually be celebrated on the same day, throughout all the states and territories and will be a grand spectacle of moral power and human happiness, such as the world has never yet witnessed.
The subtext and it was barely subtext in a novel subtitled Life North and South: Showing the True Character of Both was that New Englands Thanksgiving tradition was representative of the true American ethos. While food and family were key to the holiday, so was freedom. By implication, that freedom was cherished in the north but not throughout the country.
The success of Northwood catapulted Hale into a career as an editor. She soon took over Godeys Ladys Book, which she grew into Americas most popular periodical. Though she insisted that Godeys remain apolitical, each year Hale would advocate in the magazines pages for a New England-style Thanksgiving holiday to be celebrated throughout the whole country on the same day. She also wrote to every state governor each year asking that a Thursday in November (sometimes the third, often the last) be dedicated to Thanksgiving.
Many southern politicians were less than enthused. Governor Henry Wise of Virginia wrote back in 1856 that the theatrical national claptrap of Thanksgiving was merely a mask to aid other causes. By other causes, Wise meant abolition. He knew Thanksgiving was a Trojan horse; cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie would get the northerners through the front door, and theyd soon be spreading their claptrap throughout the slaveholding south.
That same year, the Evening Star in Washington DC, along with other southern newspapers, complained that Thanksgiving was an attempt to replace the legitimate Christian holiday of Christmas with a secular day where an astonishing quantity of execrable liquor will be guzzled.
Still, by 1863, Hale had convinced Abraham Lincoln to declare a Day of National Thanksgiving, though it would not become a true national holiday until Franklin D Roosevelt signed it into law in 1941.
Meanwhile, the Mayflowers passengers only slowly entered the story, and it wasnt until the first decades of the 20th century that school children began the annual November rite of learning about and re-enacting the Pilgrim story.
Much of this, too, was about New England asserting its cultural dominance in a country still racked by the horrors of the civil war and Reconstruction. The Pilgrims became the de facto founders of America at the expense of all others. Even a casual perusal of the facts would have pointed to Jamestown, Virginia, as the first English colony, as well as to earlier Spanish settlements. Even the Dutch were trading in Manhattan before the Pilgrims embarked on the Mayflower. But that history was erased in favor of the Pilgrims, whose abolitionist descendants had prevailed in the civil war.
So at your Thanksgiving table this year, when your guests try to normalize alt-right politics, or if talk turns approvingly toward a Muslim ban or wall-building, keep this in mind: they are violating the spirit of the holiday history and Sarah Josepha Hale are on your side.
At my house, well be raising a toast to Hale and her belief that Thanksgiving should be a charitable day of benevolence of action and that every American home be a place of plenty and of rejoicing.
Its a worthy sentiment, and Im with her. But if you mention Trump at my table, youre still risking a pie to the face.