Sunday, November 30, 2014

Post-Thanksgiving Digestif (cheers and fears)

Thanksgiving became a regular national holiday only in 1863 when President Lincoln called upon the nation "to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens." Some of his predecessors had, however, declared individual days of thanks at various times of the year. In the meantime, the autumn holiday was celebrated in New England (the Governor of Massachusetts proclaimed a Thanksgiving in 1816). By the 1840s, the holiday was gaining currency elsewhere in the country.

Indeed, we find it mentioned in some of the earliest letters of Emily Dickinson. As it happens, the weather preceding the holiday in 1847 was much the same as it was here this week (except that then it rained rather than snowed). Writing from Mount Holyoke Female Seminary to her friend Abiah Root in January 1848, she recalled:
We all went home on Wednesday before Thanksgiving & a stormy day it was. . . . The storm did not at all subside that night, but in the morning I was waked by the glorious sun himself, staring full in my face. We went to church in the morning & listened to an excellent sermon from our own minister, Mr Colton. At noon we returned and had a nice dinner, which, you well know cannot be dispensed with on Thanksgiving day.
The combined historical origins of the festival and its institutionalization by Abraham Lincoln long made Thanksgiving a "Yankee holiday," an image that did not dissipate for several decades after the Civil War.

* * *

I subtitled this post "cheers and fears" because, this year, I seemed to detect more stress on the alcoholic beverages that best accompany the Thanksgiving repast--"a nice dinner," as Emily put it--as well as a few stories (maybe everyone is desperate for a new angle) that play up the dark side of the holiday--in jest, to be sure. Maybe it's all in my head, but that's as good an excuse as any.

Although the article explaining how best to pair wine with each Thanksgiving food is a perennial feature of the periodical press (and now online food and beverage sites), it seems that the cocktail is receiving new attention. We have pieces desperately trying to come up with clever new drinks (1, 2). (Turkey bouillon? Puréed potatoes? Dude! Seriously?) And we have pieces that poke fun at those pieces and call for simplicity and common sense (1, 2). Although I always appreciate any good recipe, I have to admit that I (unsurprisingly) incline toward the historical.

We know of course that the Pilgrims and their descendants drank a lot (even or especially at funerals), but theirs were the typical drinks of England and the evolving colonies: beer, wine, and spirits such as rum, or beverages including these as ingredients. (More on that in a coming post.)

For those seeking something more modern but still historical, there is a 1960s drink called the Thanksgiving Special, but it is in essence the same as the "Darb," which dates back to circa 1930 and is thus suitably historical. (1, 2, 3).

Moving a bit further back in time, I'd recommend the "Sangaree" (1, 2), which as Ted Haigh explains, is vaguely related to but not at all the same as "sangria." Traceable to the eighteenth century, when it evidently was a popular item in Caribbean whorehouses, it was made of some blend of alcohol (at first, red wine), water, sugar, and spices; it did not consistently include citrus.  A good modern version uses red wine and cognac.

And next time I give a big party, I'm certainly going to consider mixing up a bowl of USS Richmond Punch, named after a Union Civil War ship (1, 2). Ingredients for this one include rum, cognac, port, Grand Marnier, and champagne. Don't drink and sail (and don't even think about using one of those nine-inch smoothbores) if you've had one of these.


As for fears:

At Slate, legal correspondent Dahlia Lithwick uses the famed White House holiday ritual to poke fun at the fuss over the recent White House executive action: Obama’s Thanksgiving Amnesty: Will the president’s turkey pardon start a wave of unauthorized poultry immigration?

With minds that must have been moving along in the same groove, the folks over at Destination America TV came up with a special on "When Turkeys Attack":

There's nowhere to run and nowhere to hide when predator becomes prey. Our nation's turkey population has grown from 300,000 to a staggering 7 million in only 70 years. It's become an epidemic that will ruffle anyone's feathers! Fearless, intelligent and territorial, turkeys are taking over, terrorizing unsuspecting, innocent townspeople all over the country. In this one-hour Thanksgiving special, we'll see personal video of turkey attacks and hear from the surviving victims.
Damned immigrants. It's actually pretty funny.

By contrast, here's what turkeys fear:

(This one is from The American Hysterical Society. Hat tip to my friends at the American Association for State and Local History [AASLH] discussion group.)

* * *

Here's what I fear: The ever greater encroachment of coercive commercialism upon our holidays.

It's not about some naive and idealistic lament for lost purity. Any historian should know better than that. Commerce and culture have long been intertwined. (Don't forget that Johannes Gutenberg began his entrepreneurial career hoping to make a killing by selling "holy mirrors" to pilgrims.) To portray the problem as one of corporate "greed," as is typically the case, is also misguided: that is to psychologize the problem and cast it in moralizing rather than structural terms.

There are two problems: the cultural and the ethical.

When I was a senior in college applying for various scholarships, I was asked in one interview in a swanky Chicago highrise, "What do you think of 'the attenuation of periodicity'?" Since I had to devote most of my relatively unsophisticated Midwestern brainpower to figuring out just what the hell the question even meant, I suppose my answer was not very good. (Spoiler: I did not get the scholarship.) Nowadays I could probably give a better answer. I teach my students that premodern times in Europe were characterized by dramatic swings of activity and temperament: we speak of the wild fluctuations of "feast and fast." Modern rhythms, by contrast, are much more flattened: we have few holidays and work most of the time (even the weekend is a relatively recent development). The advent of 24/7 service and shopping, though a benefit in many ways, has only accentuated this tendency.

As anyone of a certain age can tell you: it used to be that one did not see Christmas decorations and other signs of the holiday or its marketing until Advent, or at least, after Thanksgiving. Nowadays, it seems, they appear ever earlier. Beginning on Halloween, the Hallmark Channel (not that it is a measure of anything but itself) replaces its regular programs with Christmas programs.That's nearly two months of this tedious treacle.

Again, it's not only about commerce, as such, but about losing our sense of time. When the entire period from October through New Year's becomes one long and increasingly undifferentiated marketing season, we lose our sense of the distinctiveness of the holidays that define it, and perhaps of the seasons themselves. The purpose of holidays is, after all, to mark differences in time.

As for the ethical: as one who grew up in a region in which some combination of blue laws and custom kept almost all stores closed on Sundays, I am glad that we have moved beyond that particularistic religious restriction on citizens' activity in a secular republic (though--fun facts to know and tell--you still can't buy alcohol in Minnesota or a car in Wisconsin on a Sunday). Personally, I therefore also have little sympathy for European handwringing that the end of anachronistic store-closing laws endangers mom-and-pop stores (Germans call them Tante-Erna-Läden). Ironic, of course, to see supposed leftists defending capitalists. (1) There are more consumers than small capitalists, and when both partners in a marriage have to work, being able to shop in the evening or on Saturday afternoon is a de facto necessity. (2) The logic of the economic system, as the German socialists pointed out more than a century ago, is that the small owners will go under anyway. They will survive only to the extent that they can offer a distinctive benefit or value.

Conservatives love to trumpet that supposedly salvific Pilgrim switch from socialism to capitalism: As if the insane desire to buy more stuff on "Black Friday" (even the Brits--who don't celebrate Thanksgiving--have succumbed to the mania: with predictable results) were not bad enough, an increasing number of enterprises (not only large chains) are now opening on Thanksgiving day itself: which is to say, requiring the workers to show up rather than celebrate the holiday with friends and family. Staples, for example, decided to open its stores at 6:00 p.m.--as Adam Vaccaro of the Boston Globe quipped, "(because nothing says “Merry Christmas” like office supplies!)." In Massachusetts, our surviving blue laws keep the stores themselves closed, but the staff of the corporate headquarters still had to report for work.

Somehow, I do not think that this is what our "Pilgrim Forefathers" had in mind.

It's especially ironic, given that historical Thanksgivings were occasions whose very nature precluded the carrying on of ordinary activity. That's what I meant about time. The first such national proclamation, by the Continental Congress, in 1777, included the injunction to refrain not only from frivolous entertainments, but also from "servile labor."

So, no, the ethical issue is not mere "greed": it's not even clear that opening on Thanksgiving is profitable, as such, but the logic of competition pushes stores to stay open, and that in turn inexorably attracts more shoppers. In the process, workers are forced to give up one of the few universally observed national holidays; many federal holidays are marked only by public institutions, banks, and the like, rather than retailers. (Airports and related travel facilities may be a different matter, though it's a myth that Thanksgiving is the busiest travel day of the year.) As one analyst put it, retailers have created a "Catch-22" for themselves: "the more they do this Thanksgiving shopping thing, the more people will think it's normal, and then the retailers will have to open even if it's not profitable." And the workers will work and we will shop, and once again, we will have lost something of that precious feel of time--and rest.

Thanksgiving vs. "Franksgiving"

Of course, the seeds were planted long ago. In 1939, November had five Thursdays, and that seemed to mean a reduced Christmas shopping season, which, as NPR tells us, "worried large retailers who lobbied FDR to move up Thanskgiving. He did." Then, as now, presidential executive action was controversial: Republican Alf Landon denounced the President as a "Hitler." Many others simply mocked and sulked. And so, states where the progressives were in control celebrated the holiday on November 23, while conservative states rejected what came to be called "Franksgiving" and stuck with November 30. (a video here; can't embed it, for some reason).

Increasing numbers of people are now actively resisting the consumer binge of Black Friday. And then there's "Cyber Monday." Slate tells us it's "the dumbest fake holiday of the year," while Mashable, tongue-in-cheek, lauds its superiority to Black Friday. Still, we all need to buy things sometime, and the convenience and benefits of the online marketplace are not to be underestimated. But how do you know whether you really need something--or someone else really needs that gift?  Here's a handy flowchart, courtesy of Callie Enlow at Good magazine:

full image and story

Choose wisely.

[updates: correct edit posted; link added]

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