Mary Had a Little Clam
(How America nearly killed its own holiday)
Monday, November 19, 2012 5:32 AM
** Thanksgiving in America **
As every schoolchild knows, unless they're overmedicated, Thanksgiving is a uniquely American holiday, along with our perennial President's Day White Sale, and the wildly popular The Post Office Lost Another Billion Dollars This Month Month.
Yes, Thanksgiving is a special time when we celebrate (among other things) our independence from Great Britain, a country defined by an untouchable caste of self-serving lawgivers, shrinking exports, and socialized medicine, all in the hands of a haughty, seemingly infallible royalty playing coddle-master to a whiny, uninformed electorate.
No, wait, that's America. Okay, never mind. Let's move on.
** The First Thanksgiving **
As most schoolchildren could tell you, if they weren't busy texting, the tradition now known as Thanksgiving began in the fall of 1621, when Pilgrims and Native Americans gathered together to celebrate a successful harvest (literal translation: "well, they're obviously not leaving, so let's create a White Sale"). On a whim, the Pilgrims decided to have a three-day feast, as opposed to their traditional methods of celebrating the arrival of winter (freezing and starving to death). They were joined by 108% of the local Wampanoag tribe. (head count provided by the Plymouth Bipartisan Board of Poll Watchers)
For that first Thanksgiving, the Wampanoag delegation was led by their tribal leader, Chief Ted 'Massasoit' Kennedy, who introduced the Pilgrim settlers to a vital food source ('maize') and introduced the Wampanoag to a vital revenue source ('maize tax'). Things went swimmingly until another member of the tribe, Deputy Assistant Under-Chief Willard 'Mittasoit' Romney, suggested the Pilgrims pay for the tribe's universal health care (literal translation: 'tax maze'). The plan didn't go over very well, there in pre-colonial Cape Cod, so Chief Willard was forced to move to Utah, where he founded Mormonism. That didn't go over very well, either, so in 1624, Romney moved to Iowa and began his long-standing tradition of running for President, once somebody invented the State Fair.
Overall, however, the first Thanksgiving feast represented a treasured moment in American history, since nobody yet had invented carbs, trans-fats, or PETA. According to the logs of Edward Winslow, a Pilgrim spokes-puritan, host and guest alike enjoyed a meal of deer, turkey and other fowl, clams and fish, berries, plums, and not boiled pumpkin. (Oh, they ate the boiled pumpkin. They just didn't enjoy it.)
And of course, after the first Thanksgiving, all the women went outside to wash dishes, hang the leftovers from a tree branch, and wait for somebody to invent Brad Pitt; meanwhile, the Pilgrim men passed out in primitive Lazy-Boys, waited for the Detroit game, and helped coin the word 'eructation.' (a Latin term, loosely translated as 'pull my finger')
** Scattered Thanksgivings **
Though we base our current Thanksgiving holiday on that first three-day grocery binge in 1621, it was hardly an overnight sensation. There were sporadic, regional celebrations, usually to give thanks for local events, such as the end of a drought, or the latest catalog of non-wooden teeth. But over 150 years went by before men from all thirteen colonies collectively celebrated a 'day of Thanksgiving,' after the guys spotted Dolly Madison in a bathing suit. (The women were still outside by the 'leftovers' tree, hacking at some frozen clams.)
In 1789, President George "Who's Ya Father?" Washington proclaimed Thursday, 26 November, as the very first national day of Thanksgiving. This was to be a day to celebrate the official formation of a new nation, so that America could officially begin borrowing billions of dollars from China. Unfortunately, though, the nation got sidetracked. Somebody invented the ACLU, and suddenly, all over the colonies, constitutional lawyers were having heated debates over odd, arcane things called 'clauses' and 'nuances' and 'per diem fees.' Then somebody pointed out that we didn't actually have a Constitution yet, so everybody had to stop what they were doing and go draft one.
And so, even after a national day of Thanksgiving was declared in 1789, there was still no annual celebration.
Except for the lawyers.
** The Mother of Thanksgiving **
As it so often turns out, it took a woman to get the job done. We owe our modern Thanksgiving to Sarah Josepha Hale, a contemporary of President Lincoln who spent forty years of her life advocating for a national, annual Thanksgiving holiday. (Rumor has it that Sarah may have invested heavily in cranberries, but she's allowed to do that. It's in the Constitution. Look it up.)
Sarah Hale, by the way, was the editor of something called Godey's Lady's Book, and if that little factoid ever comes in handy, please let me know. But she's also credited as the author of the famous nursery rhyme, 'Mary Had a Little Lamb,' a sad, irritating story about an underage stalker disguised as an albino farm animal. ('And everywhere that Mary went...')
And so, for forty long years, Sarah kept at it, year after year, endlessly demanding a Thanksgiving holiday, carping about cranberries, and reciting her famous poem at anyone who didn't see her coming. Finally, President Lincoln, who was willing to try just about anything to shut her up ... I mean, to hold America together, agreed to the idea, and on 3 October, 1863, he issued his Thanksgiving Proclamation, which declared the last Thursday in each November to be a day of thanksgiving and praise, and to signal the outbreak of holiday shopping.
Honest Abe christened the new Post Office holiday during a press conference in the Rose Garden, where he established another annual Thanksgiving tradition by pardoning two attorneys. In a spirit of bipartisanship, Congress adjourned until 1901.
** FDR Bungs It Up **
For the next 75 years, America got itself used to its annual, end-of-November Thanksgiving weekend. But then, in 1939, things changed again, thanks to President Franklin "Fear Itself" Roosevelt, a man who seemed to think the United States was his own personal box of Legos. Roosevelt, who was elected President so many times that the Republicans had to buy a new elephant, decided to just issue his own Thanksgiving Proclamation, thank you very much.
In 1939, FDR decided to yank Thanksgiving back a week, a bold, selfless move based on Roosevelt's deeply-held religious conviction that moving the holiday would extend the Christmas shopping season. Of course, the immediate result was mass confusion: calendars were now incorrect; school schedules were disrupted; Howard Cosell missed a connecting flight.
And then Americans did what Americans do. We made it worse.
** The Schism **
All across America, an uproar roared up, led by governors, politicians, and other life forms that depend on a host organism. Twenty-three States actually ignored the proclamation and kept right on being humble and thankful on the last weekend of the month. Twenty-three other States sided with FDR's new third-week Thanksgiving, while Colorado and Texas decided to celebrate both dates. In a spirit of bipartisanship, Congress just took the whole month off.
(This was back when we only had 48 States, as opposed to our current crop of 57.)
And so, there we were, a nation mired in quag. The holiday that had been established by President Lincoln to bring the country together was now doing the exact opposite - that other thing, that whaddayacallit thing that involves a bunch of rending, where stuff gets asundered.
Where would it all lead?
** Congress Fixes Everything **
You're right. That was its own joke.