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.)
A former deputy editor of the Wall Street Journal, Kirkpatrick is a journalist by trade, and she is most effective when playing the role of reporter. She is in her element when talking to students at Newcomers High or describing volunteers at a Connecticut food bank, and these vignettes are valuable snapshots of how contemporary Americans understand and observe the holiday. But Kirkpatrick also insists on writing about the history of Thanksgiving—that’s her primary emphasis, in fact—and here she does more harm than good. It’s not just that she occasionally gets her facts wrong, as when she asserts, repeatedly, that Pilgrim governor William Bradford provided a detailed account of the “First Thanksgiving.” (He didn’t allude to it at all.) Nor is it that she sometimes recycles hoary myths, such as the contention that the Pilgrims left Holland in search of religious freedom. (They didn’t. Holland was one of the most religiously tolerant countries in the world in the early 17th century.)
The real problem is that she repeatedly commits the cardinal sin of “presentism”: the natural but misleading human tendency to view the past through the lens of the present. Presentism inadvertently recreates the past in our own image, exaggerating what is familiar and distorting, trivializing, or ignoring what is foreign or strange. In this case, presentism transforms the Pilgrims and Wampanoag into our next-door neighbors in funny clothes: quainter versions of ourselves who nonetheless act and think just like us.
If there is a unifying thread to Kirkpatrick’s scattered approach, it’s her insistence that, while the details may have changed, the essence of Thanksgiving has remained constant since the Pilgrims paused in the fall of 1621 to celebrate their first harvest in America. If we could travel back in time and observe the event, we would witness a celebration “remarkably similar to the holiday we mark today.” And if the participants at that 17th-century feast could visit America in the 21st century, they would marvel at the faithful perpetuation of the tradition they bequeathed to posterity.
Nearly four centuries later, as Kirkpatrick puts it, “shades of the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag sit today at every American’s Thanksgiving table.” That the Pilgrims didn’t think of their harvest celebration as a day of thanksgiving is something that Kirkpatrick acknowledges but dismisses. The Pilgrims conceived of Thanksgiving as a literal “holy day” devoted to prayer and worship, but the author labels those who would emphasize this difference as “naysayers.” Just because the Pilgrims didn’t think of their celebration as a Thanksgiving “is no reason we shouldn’t do so.”
In like manner, Kirkpatrick insists that the “First Thanksgiving” of 1621 “pointed the way to the diverse, multicultural people we have become.” Without evidence, she assumes that the Pilgrims actually invited the Wampanoag to their celebration (no contemporary source establishes this), and she exults in the “friendly coexistence” that united these disparate peoples. In his history Of Plymouth Plantation, however, Pilgrim governor William Bradford depicted the relations with the Wampanoag as strained at best—more Cold War-era détente than comfortable multiculturalism.
Kirkpatrick’s discussion of the famous Squanto drives home the difference. She quotes Bradford’s description of the English-speaking Indian as “a special instrument sent of God for their good,” not realizing that the Pilgrims’ belief in divine sovereignty assured them that the Lord could use even heathen enemies as vehicles of blessing. In reality, the Pilgrims distrusted Squanto as much as they relied on him, and elsewhere in his history, Bradford described Squanto as a schemer who “sought his own ends and played his own game.”
Intent to Inspire
This is not just academic hair-splitting. The problem with presentism—apart from its distortion of historical reality—is that it robs history of its power to surprise, challenge, and teach us. Historians often compare the past to a foreign country. When we travel to another land, it changes the way we see our own homes. In like manner, when we take the foreignness of the past seriously, it gives us new eyes to see and assess our own time. Presentism makes this impossible. All we see in the past is a mirror image of ourselves. All we hear from the past is what we already believe.
If we took them seriously and actually listened to them, the Pilgrims might have much to say that would challenge us. Their values bring into bold relief our worldliness, our individualism, the superficiality of our communities, and the shallowness of our worldviews. They might even challenge how we think about Thanksgiving. You’ll learn none of this from Kirkpatrick’s account, however. To the book’s final pages, her highest priority seems to be to inspire us, and if the facts get in the way, so much the worse for the facts. Indeed, the book concludes with an afterword in which Kirkpatrick proposes the revival of the custom of placing five kernels of corn on each diner’s plate before the beginning of the Thanksgiving feast. The custom originated in an apocryphal legend that the Pilgrims subsisted on this scant daily ration during their first winter. Kirkpatrick admits it’s not true, but she thinks it would be a wonderful way to promote gratefulness (if not truthfulness) at Thanksgiving.
In sum, Kirkpatrick has given us the history-book equivalent of a Hallmark movie: occasionally inspiring, relentlessly sentimental, but always more imaginative than realistic. Happily, we don’t have to misrepresent the past to be inspired by it or learn from it.
Robert Tracy McKenzie teaches history at Wheaton College. He is the author of The First Thanksgiving: What The Real Story Tells Us About Loving God and Learning from History (IVP Academic).
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