Football, turkey and pumpkin pie – the traditions of Thanksgiving may be familiar to most, yet the origins of this holiday remain somewhat mysterious.
Early settlers in the 16th century observed the holiday as a way to give thanks for a safe passage to the New World. But as America grew, so did Thanksgiving. Today, it is seen as the quintessential all-American holiday, and modern-day Thanksgiving is closely tied with the idea of America‘s civil religion.
“We have a civil religion that combines a faith in God with a faith in our political system, patriotism and nationalism,“ said American studies professor Jay Mechling. “It becomes a very important uniting factor in the U.S.“
Despite any religious associations, it is the secular nature of Thanksgiving that makes it so widely celebrated throughout the country. As a secular holiday, it allows Americans of different religious and cultural backgrounds to participate fully without feeling they are compromising their beliefs, said American studies professor Ari Y. Kelman.
“Ultimately, it‘s about family, food and football,“ Kelman said. “I don‘t know of any ethnic group that this doesn‘t appeal to.“
One iconic feature of the holiday is the Thanksgiving meal – and it, like the holiday, is open to interpretation. Mechling noted that many families adapt the basic formula of the meal to represent a part of their own cultural heritage.
“People then literally consume an ethnic identity that they have,“ he said.
Candice Lo, president of the UC Davis Chinese Student Association, spoke of Thanksgiving from an Asian American perspective.
“[Celebrating the holiday] depends completely on the family and their cultural background,“ she said.
Mechling compared and contrasted Thanksgiving to another big winter holiday – Christmas.
According to Mechling, elements in Thanksgiving – such as its lack of commercialization – are aimed to ease the material nature of Christmas.
“Thanksgiving is a corrective festival,“ Mechling said. “This correction can be seen in its re-emphasizing of values, like the family. Unlike Christmas, Thanksgiving doesn‘t usually involve giving presents or lavishing money on decoration. Thanksgiving is about everyone converging at home for a good meal.“
Families gathering and eating good comfort food can also help ease high levels of anxiety, he added.
The realities of Thanksgiving‘s origin may lie deeper within the human psyche. Mechling said that yearly festivals such as Thanksgiving coincide with the onset of harder times. Following in the tradition of the old European harvest festivals, Thanksgiving helps to order a naturally chaotic period.
“Human beings see periods like winter as danger-zones,“ Mechling said. “As we see signs of this danger approaching in fall, things dying and decaying, we celebrate festivals like Thanksgiving as a way of reassuring ourselves that we‘ll be OK through the winter.“
CHRISTOPHER BONE can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.