Trick or tradition?

by Sam Bilton on November 27, 2018 No comments

December is on the horizon and we are fast approaching a time of year which is steeped in tradition. Of course we are still in November and it may be too early for some to start talking about the ‘C’ word. Whether we like it or not our thoughts will begin to drift towards ordering turkeys; getting the decorations out of storage and pondering what the hell to buy Aunt Mabel the lady who has everything.

In a way I envy the Americans with their Thanksgiving celebrations. Although the British don’t recognise Thanksgiving as a UK holiday for me it serves as a first call for the festive season. We have a number of American friends so we know how important this day is on the other side of the pond (and to those ex pats living in this country). When Thanksgiving arrives I know it’s time to start the preparations for our traditional English Christmas.

What exactly makes a tradition?

This question is explored in depth by a retired Professor of Anthropology Jack David Eller in Inventing American Tradition. It turns out that tradition is something of a fickle beast. As Eller points out ‘for most people, the essence of tradition is its connection with the past, usually (selectively) remembered (or imagined) as a “noble past”’.

Thanksgiving is one such American tradition Eller unpicks. No doubt like millions of Americans I believed this holiday commemorated the first solemn gathering of the Mayflower pilgrims to give thanks for food they had grown during their first year in a strange and hostile land. In fact they were so grateful Thanksgiving has been observed as a holiday ever since. However, the truth of how Thanksgiving actually came into being is a little more complex.

The pilgrims who settled in New England in the 1620s were largely puritans (fanatical protestants) fleeing religious persecution in England. In their homeland they were viewed as a dour bunch who eschewed revelry and popish or pagan customs such as Christmas and Easter. Early settler life was hard and they were naturally thankful when they reaped their first harvest. An early account of this event was recorded in 1622 by one of the Pilgrim Fathers, Edward Winslow. This celebration of course bears little resemblance to a modern Thanksgiving dinner. All of the wheat had been used up (therefore there were no bread or pastry products); there was no milk, cheese or butter as the Pilgrims didn’t bring any cows with them; and the fowl Winslow describes could have been ducks, geese, partridge or maybe turkey. Eller stresses that creating an annual feast day on which to give thanks, would have seemed blasphemous to the pilgrims. In all likelihood the pilgrims offered their prayers, enjoyed their dinner then went home and forgot all about it.

How and when did the tradition of Thanksgiving evolve?

Traditions usually start with a germ of truth which may be rooted in history (grateful pilgrims). They often involve some kind of ritual (festive feast). In order to keep going (and growing) they have to a champion, or as Eller refers to them a ‘tradition entrepreneur’, (in this case Abraham Lincoln) in order that they can be disseminated to future generations.

‘But Abraham Lincoln didn’t become president until 1861’, I hear you say. Be that as it may, it wasn’t until 1863 that Lincoln declared a national holiday on ‘the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwells in the Heavens’. No mention was made of the inaugural founding father’s feast.

Prior to Lincoln’s declaration there had been individual days of gratitude such as 18 December 1777 when the Americans defeated the British army at the Battle for Saratoga. John Adams proclaimed 9 May 1798 as a day of ‘solemn humiliation, fasting and prayer’ which was probably the closest the early Americans ever got to replicating the original Plymouth Thanksgiving. Certainly, in the early 18th century harvest feasts were very much a regional thing restricted to the colonies in New England (evidently some New Englanders clung onto their early ancestors aversion to celebrating Christmas right into the 19th century). However, as people began to migrate westwards so did their ‘traditions’ although in the 1850s the Texan governor still viewed Thanksgiving as a “damned Yankee institution”.

Tradition impersonator?

It would be very easy at this point to dismiss Thanksgiving as a tradition impersonator. But don’t forget that our very own English Christmas with its decorated trees, presents, cards and roast turkey is very much a Victorian invention (much of which has be borrowed from other cultures like the Christmas tree popularised by the German Prince Albert. And whilst we are on the subject of borrowing traditions, let’s not forget how gleefully we have adopted the American style practice of ‘trick or treating’ at Halloween.). Plum pudding or porridge has indeed been around for centuries but it could be eaten at a feast in May as well as December (the importance of this dish being the extravagant use of dried fruit and expensive spices making it ideal for a special dinner). Traditional celebrations are rather like recipes  – they evolve over time with additions and subtractions along the way (the minced pie is a case in point here and it contains no meat whatsoever in the 21st century). 

Surely the important thing with any traditional celebration is that it brings people together? Many of us have our own ‘traditions’ which are unique to our family or a particular group of friends. It may be a tradition in your house to always watch the Queen’s speech on Christmas Day or to play Twister after your festive lunch. How long these traditions have been going on is semantic in my opinion. ‘As with all myths, their value is not their truth but their consequences,’ says Eller. 

Although Eller’s book focuses on American traditions like the origins of the national anthem, the eponymous hamburger and Micky Mouse it will make you consider how our own traditions have evolved. The introduction is quite academic but is worth reading if only to put the following chapters in context.  I shall leave you with a quote from Jean Cocteau which opens the first chapter:

‘History is facts which become lies in the end; legends are lies which become history in the end.’

Enough said.

Inventing American Tradition by Jack David Eller (Reaktion Books, £25)

Sam BiltonTrick or tradition?

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