By Andrew Lin
BY ANDREW LIN
An exploration of the portrayal of Thanksgiving in popular culture and art.
Within the confines of the great and storied calendar of holidays that make up the American recreational canon, Thanksgiving occupies a unique place. Though certainly not of the same obscure ilk of federally legislated and popularly neglected holidays such as President’s Day and Columbus Day, Thanksgiving nonetheless occupies a somewhat less rarefied place in the American consciousness. Certainly in feasting and consumerist consumption Thanksgiving is not bested; whilst the dueling Thanksgiving turkey and Christmas ham (or the reverse) may hold each other at bay, Thanksgiving’s single Black Friday consumerist burst is utterly outclassed by the sustained six-week sales barrage that is the holiday season. Nevertheless, Thanksgiving has managed to carve out its own small niche in the American pop culture landscape, and a diverse one at that. From its altogether dignified portrayal in the American historical lexicon to its uniquely un-rarefied place in the swamps of made-for-TV movies, Thanksgiving as a cultural motif has certainly evolved throughout its long and storied history–a history some 300 years in the making.
The archetypical history of Thanksgiving, at least as enumerated by primary-school history books and heartwarming television specials, has become one of the many staid and traditional scenes within the American historical lexicon. The classic historical narrative of Thanksgiving centers on good and pure Pilgrims who land on the virgin shores of the New World and share a friendly harvest meal with good-natured natives (a tale perhaps best exemplified the seminal Peanuts TV special “This is America, Charlie Brown”). Historically, however, New World harvest-time feasts existed long before the Pilgrims of 1621. French fur-traders and explorers in the 1500s held harvest-time services, and even the English colonists at Jamestown celebrated a routine Thanksgiving feast as early as 1607. Indeed, the very concept behind Thanksgiving–that of a harvest feast–transcends the bounds of American colonialism; harvest feasts as cultural ceremonies have existed the world over–an expression of the simple human joy at the continued renewal of the bounty of nature.
In the world of the paintings and drawings that compose what is now popularly termed Americana, however, Thanksgiving has made a lasting and meaningful (and uniquely American) contribution. Of course, harvests and the accompanying festivals have inspired much in the way of artwork throughout history (the laboring farmers of Millet and Courbet come to mind), and Thanksgiving is no exception. But perhaps the single most famous Thanksgiving picture, the seminal image of Thanksgiving as rendered in oil paints and disseminated all over the nation, is Norman Rockwell’s 1942 “Freedom from Want”, another Saturday Evening Post cover depicting a Thanksgiving feast as emblematic of the freedoms America fought for during World War II. Even in this rallying call of Americana, however, there lurks a subtler message. In the accompanying essay originally published in the Post with Rockwell’s cover, writer Carlos Bulosan (himself a migrant laborer) skewered the inequality he observed in America, and discussed the role of Thanksgiving as an opportunity to contemplate the necessity of greater state intervention in ensuring the prosperity of all.
More recent popular culture has taken notice of the somewhat co-optive nature of the American Thanksgiving canon as well. Certainly the holiday is regarded with some scorn by the original hosts; the United American Indians of New England celebrate a yearly Day of Mourning at Plymouth on Thanksgiving Day that marks the deleterious and damaging effects of the American colonization of formerly American Indian lands. Many oppose what Thanksgiving has become; bemoaning the glutinous overeating, rampant commercialism, and historical whitewashing that hide the realities of the oppression of Native Americans and the less fortunate. More modern media has highlighted the historical whitewashing of Thanksgiving as well. The 1993 film “Addams Family Values” eschewed the slapstick of its 60s’ predecessor by lashing out at sanitized portrayals of American Indians as savages, climaxing in Wednesday Addams’ Indian uprising during the children’s Thanksgiving matinee. The single greatest insult to the American vision of Thanksgiving, however, came in the form of the vitriolic 1999 CBS television sitcom “Thanks”, which in six episodes brutally skewered the idea of the first Thanksgiving as anything other than a desperate struggle for survival.
These weighty historical themes, however, fall by the wayside in comparison to the chief purpose of Thanksgiving as a modern holiday, namely a time during which families may break bread in a moment of brief unity. In this regard, Thanksgiving serves a helpful backdrop for many television series, and indeed a Thanksgiving special is a rite of passage for most sitcoms and television series. These have grown more and more subversive in tone over the years. The happy Thanksgiving transplantation of characters characteristic of 70’s-era sitcoms such as “Happy Days” and “Bewitched” has long since given way to a stream of dysfunctional Thanksgivings. In between the criticism hurled at Thanksgiving for its historical undertones and the dread many thousands of retail workers face for Black Friday, however, Thanksgiving as an institution has come under sustained fire in popular culture. Cartoons lambast the decline of family values amidst a sea of consumerism even as their parent newspapers trumpet the best available deals, and amidst the hustle and bustle of advertising the American family of the 21st century sits down in a haze and a blaze of turkey and stuffing, wondering just where the value of the holiday actually lies.
In the midst of this modern pop-culture war over the soul of Thanksgiving, the Pilgrim colony founder John Winthrop (namesake of Winthrop House) would almost certainly express not inconsiderable confusion over the help given to him by some American Indians. Indeed he should be confused, for Thanksgiving represents as much a contradiction in American history as anything else, a holiday implicitly celebrating the demise of a whole way of life in favor of something better. Yet that very something, at least in the eyes of the American popular consciousness, increasingly seems less and less satisfactory; the cynical nature of the modern Thanksgiving special on popular television signifies that much, what with its pillorying of the consumerism, historical whitewashing, and familial dysfunction the holiday has come to commemorate. And indeed, two of the three components are perhaps corrupted beyond repair: the consumerism during and immediately after is a valuable boost to a beleaguered service economy, and the historical context unfortunately cannot be effectively reversed. But family, at least, can be cherished as a properly human thing to celebrate, and something that deserves commemoration. And in that regard, Thanksgiving rises above all the comedy and criticism as a celebration of the basic virtues of filial love and warmth, an expression of the fundamental warmth of a holiday that was originally celebrated as a simple coming together of disparate individuals in a strange and bountiful new world.
Sounds rather like the collegiate experience, doesn’t it?
Andrew Lin ’17 (email@example.com) is heartily regretting eating far too much at Thanksgiving this year.