This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.

Thoughts on Thanksgiving 2021
John Surdu 11/24/2021 11:01 AM

Thoughts on Thanksgiving


Like the Korean War (the "Forgotten War"), Thanksgiving, more and more, seems to be the forgotten holiday.  Most people don't send Thanksgiving cards that can be exploited by the card companies.  There is no exchange of gifts that can be exploited by retailers.  There are few -- if any -- Hallmark Channel Thanksgiving movies.  Other than Charlie Brown Thanksgiving, there are few movies or television specials devoted to Thanksgiving.  My mom always said that she preferred Thanksgiving over Christmas, because Thanksgiving was more about the family gathering to enjoy each other.  The gathering and sharing of a meal is more important than the avarice of gift getting.  Over time, particularly in the last few years, I have come to understand that my mom was right about Thanksgiving.


As a kid, I took for granted the stories about the Mayflower, the Pilgrims, and the first Thanksgiving.  While there is historical fact to back up this simple narrative, the real story is more complex.  Still, I think that young children should be exposed to national myths that teach cultural values.  Myths and fables are important tools, used for millennia, to teach desirable values and build a sense of common national culture.  While the stories like the first Thanksgiving celebration and Johnny Appleseed have more historical basis than tall tales like John Henry and Paul Bunyan or romanticized stories of Davy Crocket, all these stories have their place in the American psyche and are to be treasured, not vilified.


As we get older, it is possible to delve into the complexities and nuances of historical events that are beyond the capabilities of young children to comprehend.  Such is the story of the Pilgrims and the Mayflower.  I do not believe in revisionism.  The stories taught to our children have their place and teach love of America while the teachers' unions and school boards want to teach our children to hate America.  It is possible to cherish the stories used to teach our children our shared cultural and national norms and to present behavior to be emulated through those stories while also presenting a more nuanced story to adults.  That doesn't make the shared lore wrong or bad.


Some years ago, while working to allow my kids to experience all fifty states before my oldest went off to college, we spent some time on Cape Cod and Plymouth.  It was there that I purchased a copy of Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War by Nathaniel Philbrick.   This highly recommended book begins before the Plymouth landing and ends after King Phillip's War -- another forgotten war in American history.  The book had been recommended by a friend, so I picked it up -- and devoured it.  A handful of interesting truths jump from the pages of this book.


The landing of the Pilgrims was not the first time that Indians had seen Europeans.  Fishermen had been fishing off the coast of what is now the northeastern states for as long as Indians could remember.  In fact, many Indian tribes had been devastated by the bubonic plague to which they were exposed by fishermen off the coast of Maine.  The difference in the case of the Mayflower was that the Europeans came with women and children and clearly intended to stay.  


So why would Squanto wander out of the forest to teach the Europeans how to survive in America?  Was it out of some misplaced sense of altruism?  That is a question that Mayflower answered for me.  No, it was not out of altruism but self-interest.  Squanto and Chief Massasoit saw the Pilgrims as a tool to get the Pokanokets out from under the Narragansetts.


The common, "Progressive" narrative is that the Indians were communing peacefully with nature and each other until the arrival of European colonists.  Indians had been in inter-tribal wars of extermination and slave taking for many generations.  In 1620, when the Mayflower landed, the Pokanokets, once a powerful tribe, were under the thumb of the Narragansetts.  Massasoit and his allies chafed under the control of the Narragansetts and sought a way to break the impasse.   Gaining an advantage over their enemies is why they helped the Pilgrims.


 After hardships and death, there was a first Thanksgiving celebration in 1621.  According to Philbrick, 


We do not know the exact date of the celebration we now call the First Thanksgiving, but it was probably in late September or early October, soon after the crop of corn, squash, beans, barley, and peas had been harvested.


This meal would have included fish, migrating birds, deer provided by the Pokanokets -- and turkeys.  Far from the white tablecloth impression of Pilgrims in buckled shoes in reverent prayer, the First Thanksgiving was likely a mashup of the secular European harvest festivals and Indian celebrations with athletic events and merry making.


 As recorded here

Thanksgiving in the United States has been observed on differing dates. From the time of the Founding Fathers until the time of Lincoln, the date of observance varied from state to state. The final Thursday in November had become the customary date in most U.S. states by the beginning of the 19th century, coinciding with, and eventually superseding the holiday of Evacuation Day (commemorating the day the British exited the United States after the Revolutionary War). Modern Thanksgiving was proclaimed for all states in 1863 by Abraham Lincoln.


As a child, I remember Thanksgiving being marked by Charlie Brown on television and a gathering with my grandparents and my mom's sizable family.  It was a time to get reacquainted with cousins we didn't see often and enjoy each other.  It also marked the beginning of the holiday season, culminating with Christmas activities.   I remember one particularly fond Christmas in which my parents hosted a string of small gatherings with friends and family instead of a large event.  This made the Christmas break from school really feel like a long celebration instead of just a transient gift giving event.


 Thanksgiving morning, we would get up early and flip back and forth between the J.L. Hudson's Thanksgiving parade in front of the massive Hudson's building in Detroit (now razed) and the Macy's parade.  About the time that Santa arrived to give a holiday speech, we would get dressed and head to my grandparents' house.  We would gather early on Thanksgiving Day.  My mom would help in the preparation of the meal, and we were all dragooned into setting up enough tables and chairs for the whole mob.  There was often a late morning football game that resulted in us all coming home muddy and needing showers.  Strangely, there were two cartoons I associate with Thanksgiving that have no relationship to the holiday but always seemed to be televised that afternoon: a Rankin-Bass version of A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court and Hey, There, It's Yogi Bear.   (I recently found a copy of both on DVD and enjoyed the nostalgia).  Throughout the day, the smells of the Thanksgiving meal wafted through the whole house.  There would be a great meal, featuring all the traditional foods.  Of course, I was at the non-adult table that didn't have cloth napkins.  I remember one year, when my Uncle Steve had my dad in stiches telling jokes and funny stories from Vietnam (they had both served in Vietnam).   After the meal, the family often broke into smaller groups to chat, play games, or watch football.  Thanksgiving was about family.


 Stores don't make much money on Thanksgiving, so it seems that Christmas decorations go on sale after Easter.  Inexplicably, Halloween, has become a major holiday.  I understand the childhood desire to get free candy, but I don't understand the adult fascination with Halloween except as an excuse for women to prance around in slutty outfits they wouldn't normally wear.  Thanksgiving has become the forgotten holiday.  Last year Fauci even tried to cancel it.  Sigh.


 My kids will both be married soon, and I am trying to negotiate so that they both spend the same every other Christmas with us and the other Christmases with their in-laws.  I will freely admit that I go a little overboard at Christmas with decorations and gifts, and I really enjoy the holiday, so it will be hard for me to share with in-laws.  The selfish part of me hopes that they will both want to spend Thanksgiving with us.   It will be a time to gather, tell stories, enjoy each other, and probably play a lot of games, but it won't be overshadowed by the Christmas gift exchange.


 This year, as we gather for Thanksgiving, my son is deployed, but he will be with us in spirit.  While I have written many articles about how those who hate America are working hard to destroy this once-great nation, as I look around, I still see no place I'd rather be.  I have looked and considered emigration.  In the last year and a half, I lost my uncle to COVID and my dad to disease.  Yet, I still feel blessed to have been born in the land of the free.  My family is healthy and prosperous.  Like the Pilgrims, take time this year remember those who are no longer with us, to give thanks for our many blessings, and to enjoy the time of fellowship with family and friends.


 Happy Thanksgiving!



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John Surdu
Dr. John R. "Buck" Surdu retired from the US Army as a Colonel after almost 29 years of service. He served in a number of leadership positions as an infantry officer before being transferred to the Acquisition Corps. He was a successful project manager within the Army as well as a project manager at DARPA for the Deep Green program, among other projects. He holds a Ph.D. in computer science with background and refereed publications in artificial intelligence, modeling and simulation, and software engineering. He is currently working in the defense industry, creating advanced technologies. He takes seriously his oath to defend the Constitution and Bill of Rights against all enemies, foreign and domestic.

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