A few years ago, Melanie Kirkpatrick paid a visit to Newcomers High School in New York City. Newcomers is a public school in Queens that provides recent immigrants to the United States with intensive English-language training and an introduction to American culture.
Kirkpatrick was there on a late-November day to discuss the history of Thanksgiving with an audience drawn from more than 60 countries, speaking some 40 languages. Their conversation centered on the same question that drives her new book, Thanksgiving: The Holiday at the Heart of the American Experience—namely, what does this “uniquely American” holiday reveal about “the history, values, and culture of the United States?” The young people she queried didn’t know a great deal about the history of Thanksgiving, but they were pretty sure “the Pilgrims’ story mirrored their own experiences.” Kirkpatrick would have us all think the same.
Kaleidoscope of Impressions
Although Kirkpatrick describes her book as telling “the history of Thanksgiving,” her approach is more topical than chronological. She “weaves and bobs among the centuries,” offering chapters on—among other subjects—the “First Thanksgiving,” presidential Thanksgiving proclamations, Thanksgiving observances prior to the Pilgrims, Thanksgiving and Native Americans, Thanksgiving and football, Thanksgiving and generosity, and the traditional Thanksgiving menu. This kaleidoscope of impressions, Kirkpatrick contends, demonstrates how Thanksgiving “reflects and reinforces values most Americans share.” If she is right, most of us are generous, patriotic, family-oriented, appreciative of diversity, generically grateful, and vaguely, inoffensively religious.
But don’t expect a lot of theological reflection in Kirkpatrick’s treatment of Americans’ religious beliefs. She repeatedly observes that Americans overwhelmingly think of Thanksgiving as having a religious dimension, but she seems uninterested in the specifics, and the evidence for her conclusion seems entirely anecdotal. (The people she knows say a prayer before Thanksgiving dinner.) She’s probably correct that most Americans still impute a measure of religious significance to the holiday, although where religion ranks with Thanksgiving’s other dimensions—football or Black Friday preparations, for example—is a question she avoids. She surely overstates the case in insisting that “God remains at the center” of the holiday, citing the ambiguous allusions to God that still crop up in formulaic presidential Thanksgiving proclamations that almost no one reads.
Viewed from across the centuries, the most striking trend in the history of Thanksgiving in the United States has been its secularization, and one of the most disconcerting features of Kirkpatrick’s book is her inclusion, in an appendix of “suggested readings” for Thanksgiving, an “atheistic benediction” to be spoken before the meal. (Other suggested readings include Linus Van Pelt’s explanation of the origins of the holiday in A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s recipe for a turkey cocktail.)