KENNEY: Thanksgiving as a Virginian Holiday
In 1619, Virginians celebrated the First(ish) Thanksgiving. We have been ruining it ever since.
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Columnist (and Consumer of Fine Turkey Products)
"Since that great day three centuries ago when the Mayflower landed her cargo of witch-burners on our coasts, the Brahmins of Massachusetts have persisted in proclaiming Plymouth as the nation's birthplace and their state as the fount of American culture and democracy. The First Families of Virginia have just as persistently retorted that Jamestown was settled thirteen years before Plymouth and that it was the Old Dominion and not the Bay State that played the leading part in the upbuilding of early America. Nothing seems to stick quite so firmly in the proud craws of the loyal Virginians of today as these claims of the New Englanders. If they are reluctant to admit that Washington's Farewell Address was penned by Alexander Hamilton, or that Jefferson deserves little or no credit for the Louisiana Purchase, or that Monroe's part in the promulgation of the Monroe Doctrine was limited, their output of balderdash can scarcely be compared to that of the estimable sons of the Bay State."
-- Virginius Dabney, on the First Thanksgiving at Berkeley Hundred (1926)
That so few Virginians know the name of Virginius Dabney much less that of Douglas Southall Freeman remains a certain poverty. Once upon a time, both of these newspaper men were editors in the tradition of the late H.L. Mencken — all three of whom existed as a certain eminence grise against the narrowness of the day, though to varying degrees.
Thanksgiving: Virginia’s Holiday (and Accept No Substitutes)
Indeed, there are precious few Virginians who are aware that Thanksgiving — that one great American holiday cut from the very fabric of the nation — is indeed a Virginian holiday. Captain Woodlief and the settlers of Berkeley Hundred — named in the old Saxon tradition of the hundreds, meaning 100 families — celebrated a Virginian Thanksgiving in 1619 a full two years before the witch-burners of Massachusetts celebrated their treaty with the local inhabitants in 1621.
Of course, good Catholic students are drilled with the fact that the first real Thanksgiving was held in St. Augustine, Florida in 1565 with the Timucua tribe being specifically invited to feast with the settlers. More enthusiastic historians will claim that Lief Erickson would have celebrated the first Thanksgiving in the 11th century in what is modern day Nova Scotia — which seems oddly placed until one considers that no less a luminary than St. Brendan the Navigator likely discovered America in the 5th century AD.
Which is a long way of saying that a proper Thanksgiving comes with four things:
A long journey.
Thanks to a Divine Providence for delivering said personages.
Tons of food either brought or on offer.
Obviously, the grand national holiday has changed over the course of American history. Public days of thanksgiving and prayer were nearly ubiquitous during the colonial and revolutionary periods, mostly as a means of currying and demonstrating the favor of Divine Providence over Indians, French, Spaniards and eventually the British Empire itself.
By the time George Washington formalized Thanksgiving on Thursday, November 26th as a day of public acknowledgement for the blessings of an Almighty God, the idea of Thanksgiving as a public holiday had already taken firm shape in the minds of most Americans — North and South, East or West.
By the time Abraham Lincoln formalizes Thanksgiving in 1863, the feast becomes an entirely Union institution — with Lincoln spiking the football (so to speak) by commemorating the day in celebration of Union victories — many of which were yet to come. By contrast, Lincoln’s 1864 Thanksgiving Proclamation was far more conciliatory and much less direct, the outcome of the war being more certain after Grant’s prosecution of the Wilderness Campaign drove the Army of the Potomac to the very gates of Richmond.
Yet it was Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1939 who had the bright idea of making Turkey Day the fourth Thursday of November, thus giving Christmas shoppers an extra seven days of
capitalism holiday shopping. Mostly in the hopes that it would boost consumer spending and a moribund economy, the Great Depression still lingering like a bad cough in the wake of the New Deal.
Thus our Norman Rockwell dreamworld slowly dissolved into a Madison Avenue dystopia where the spirit of the holidays were put up for lease and beaten like a rented mule — all to the sound of credit card swipes and cash registers.
Christmas Doesn’t Start on 01 November
If you’re like me and many others, the extra head start on Christmas decorations might not be so terrible if they were actually up in celebration to honor the reason for the season.
When I was younger — and this was not terribly long ago — the seasons came in order. Halloween came with Disney’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and tales of Charlie Brown and the Great Pumpkin. Thanksgiving came with another round of talk of Pilgrims and pumpkin pies and yet another Charlie Brown episode on Thanksgiving. Christmas started promptly the weekend after Thanksgiving. Black Friday was frowned upon. Christmas — such as it was — started with Christmas trees and kindergarten plays, with kids lined up to see Santa Claus at the Spotsylvania Mall, with Caroline Street all lit to pieces with white bulbs in the pear trees down rows of city blocks.
The culmination point? Christmas Eve where a Midnight Mass was followed up with everyone going to sleep and waking up at 5am, ripping into presents before the real treat began — visiting grandparents.
Thanksgiving was a reminder of a few things. First and foremost, that family was the reason for everything we did. Visiting family, eating with family, driving through the back roads of Caroline County and getting to Fredericksburg proper. Feeling the heat of a wood stove that had only been fired up a few weeks earlier. Packing the house full of people, eating at the kids table and remembering that the best times were at the kids table, watching John Madden and Pat Summerall call the game — and if we were lucky, the game would be the Dallas Cowboys getting mauled by the Washington Redskins.
It was the 1980s. It could have happened.
Yet I think there’s something we have lost in the over commercialization of everything, whether it is the fact that Valentines Day starts immediately after Christmas breaks down, only for Easter to magically fire up before Lent has even begun, only for us to be pushed into Memorial Day Weekend several weeks before we are even thinking about beaches. Sure Halloween gets its day, but only after a full six weeks of selling us horror films before selling out to Christmas.
Yet before I have to hear the charge of grumbling old man — and while that might even be true, just hear me out — all this stuff isn’t the point.
Give Thanks for the Important Stuff
In fact, the stuff isn’t even important at all.
Even if we set our heads down on our pillows at night saying the stuff is at least for someone, it really isn’t. That extra shift, that extra paycheck, the extra time? Guess who isn’t going to care in 20 years. But our kids will care that we prioritized stuff over time. Time with them.
So take that long drive to grandma’s house. Invite all the family and tell them to bring that casserole you don’t eat but everyone expects. Make more food than you could possibly eat in one day and send folks home with the stuff for turkey sandwiches. Root for
the Redskins Commies WTF WFT anyone other than Dallas. Crank up that wood stove. Or at least imagine one cranked up.
More than that? Thank God for the time with our friends and families. Let them know how thankful we are for their presence — not for what they bring or do or provide — but just that it is good they are there. Maybe go out of your way to remind someone else how thankful we are for them — the more random the better.
. . .and also to remind them that Thanksgiving is indeed a Virginian holiday, to be spent with Virginians, and remind all your Yankee friends that everything they love? They stole from the Old Dominion.
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