28 November 2010

"We Gather Together"

I am always on the lookout for new Thanksgiving books.

Your typical Thanksgiving book for adults is a cookbook, whether of traditional foods or new twists, like using other ethnic foods for "spice." The book may also have tips on decorating: "tablescaping" and other ideas of how to set a pretty table.

However, very few adult books ever talk about the holiday itself. Those are mostly reserved for children, and run the gamut from the old "Pilgrims and the Indians" story to stories about being generous and giving thanks.

This year I bought two new (to me) Thanksgiving books that are concerned with the latter rather than the former.

One is indeed a children's book and has been out for a while. 1621: A New Look at Thanksgiving is a publication of National Geographic and Catherine O'Neill Grace and Margaret M. Bruchac of Plimouth Plantation in Plymouth, Massachusetts. Although we have learned for years now that most of our stories about "the first Thanksgiving" are myths created after the fact, many people still think that Pilgrims wore black and had hats and boots with buckles, that the feast they celebrated in 1621 was a "Thanksgiving," and other myths. More importantly, the book devotes much of its pages to the Native Americans who already inhabited the area we now call "Plymouth," and why some celebrate a "National Day of Mourning" to commemorate the loss of their culture.

This slim volume is liberally illustrated and even contains a couple of recipes, but not your ordinary ones.

James W. Baker has written the very readable Thanksgiving: The Biography of an American Holiday. This works very well as a companion piece to Diana Appelbaum's Thanksgiving, but is an easier read without being simplistic. It also touches more on things like images, writings, and films about Thanksgiving, changes in menus in the intervening years, and parades and football games. The one thing that this book makes very clear is that the "iconic" Thanksgiving imagery of Pilgrims and Indians only became emphasized at the very end of the 19th century and during the early decades of the 20th, back when the United States became flooded with non-English speaking immigrants whom the schools wished to impress upon some idea of the country's heritage. Previous to that it was just a New England holiday which spread as New England residents moved westward, and involved reunions with family and friends. Even stories about Thanksgiving mostly emphasized reunions between estranged or long-parted relatives; Pilgrims and Indians were not mentioned.

I highly recommend this book for anyone who wants to read more about the history of the Thanksgiving holiday and its changing face over four centuries.

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