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The Origins and Importance of Thanksgiving

Dr. Bradley Birzer, a Professor of History and the Russell Amos Kirk Chair in American Studies at Hillsdale College, co-founder of The Imaginative Conservative, and Fellow of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library discusses the origins and importance of the Thanksgiving holiday.

Bradley Birzer discusses the origins of thanksgiving

Family Policy Matters
Transcript: The Origins and Importance of Thanksgiving

INTRODUCTION: Thanks for joining us this week for Family Policy Matters. Today, we’ll be reflecting on one of the most quintessential American holidays, Thanksgiving. And we’ll be discussing the origins and importance of this national holiday with one of America’s top historical scholars, Dr. Bradley Birzer of Hillsdale College.

Dr. Birzer is a professor of History and the Russell Amos Kirk Chair in American Studies at Hillsdale College, co-founder of The Imaginative Conservative, and Fellow of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library.

Dr. Bradley Birzer, I want to welcome you to Family Policy Matters. It’s great to have you on the show.

BRADLEY BIRZER: Thanks! I’m so glad to be here.

JOHN RUSTIN: Dr. Birzer, our nation has a long history of giving corporate thanks to God for the abundant blessings we have enjoyed, dating back to some of the earliest explorers and colonists. Based on your research and study, why has gratitude, in the sense of Thanksgiving, been such a constant in our nation’s history?

BRADLEY BIRZER: It’s a great question and there’s no doubt that a lot of this does—as you just said—comes from the explorers. So, it’s always interesting when we think about someone like Christopher Columbus when he arrived in the Fall of 1492, the very first thing he did was he had mass said the moment the ships arrived. And it didn’t matter if it was Catholics or Protestants, there was always this kind of sense—after the long journey across the ocean, and not really knowing what was going to be there, just having made landfall after being on the ocean for so long—that there was a sense of thanksgiving just to have something stable under your feet. So we know of course, that our Thanksgiving celebration has its own roots, not in Columbus/ the Catholics, but in the very Calvinist tradition of the New England Puritans, the Pilgrims, when they arrived in 1620. So, that idea of giving thanks is really deeply rooted in the western Christian tradition. And so it’s connected, I would say, very intimately with the idea of feast days as well as fast days. But Thanksgiving is obviously one of those days not where we fast but where we feast. And so it’s a cornucopia because we’re looking at the created goods that God has given us and we’re celebrating that and giving thanks not just for the created goods, obviously, but for the author who gave us those goods: the Lord God Himself.

JOHN RUSTIN: Interesting. Now, I’m sure most of us remember some sort of play or craft in elementary school commemorating the first Thanksgiving celebrated by the pilgrims and the Indians in Plymouth. How accurate is that now, almost-mythological, folk tale of the first Thanksgiving, and why is it important to the character of our celebrations today?

BRADLEY BIRZER: It’s such a great question. I’ve got six kids, so my youngest is six, and of course, I’ve seen them all go through this. And I remember it very well, even though it’s been a while. I think it’s a great healthy thing for kids. Actually, I do think it’s fairly historically accurate and, amazingly enough, if any of your viewers watch the Peanuts Thanksgiving special—not the one about Charlie Brown, but where they actually reenact the coming over on the Mayflower—it’s amazingly well done. Even though it’s a cartoon, it’s very historically accurate. But just that idea of kind of mutual discovery. It’s not an idea of conquest. It’s not here are the Europeans to take over the land. There is a sense of religiosity and thanksgiving. There’s a brotherhood between men of different races with the Indians and the Pilgrims coming together. All of which was very true. So I think it celebrates. It definitely tells a particular story, but it’s certainly not a false story. And it’s a story that, I think, is one we can all benefit from reminding ourselves of from time to time. That, quite often as humans, we don’t war. We get together and we celebrate and we share things and we see a kind of common humanity there that’s quite beautiful in that celebration.

JOHN RUSTIN: As I understand it, some early opponents worried that an annual Thanksgiving celebration might contribute to people taking God’s generosity for granted. Why is that and do you see any validity to those concerns?

BRADLEY BIRZER: Oh, absolutely! I think like all good things in the world, we can always pervert them. We can mock them. We can forget them. We can distort them. So, there’s nothing wrong with Thanksgiving. It’s a good thing. But we crazy humans, with our free will, often make very poor decisions. If we can use it to make money or power—gain power—we’ll do that, unfortunately. We have to keep a constant check on that. Sadly, that’s just a fact of the human condition. I’m sure, since the fall, we’ve been doing that. I also think part of what you’re asking, at least as I see it, is this question about, “What Thanksgiving do we celebrate?” So notice, you guys are in North Carolina. I’m speaking now from Michigan. It’s very interesting that we all celebrate a Thanksgiving that is deeply rooted in one tiny part of Massachusetts, of New England. So when Juan de Onate, (my Spanish is terrible) but when Juan de Onate came into El Paso in what’s now Texas in 1598, he also held a huge Thanksgiving celebration. But none of us pattern our Thanksgiving celebration after him. We’re eating turkey, cranberries, squash, pumpkin: all the kinds of things that are native to the region of one specific area of New England. So, I think that’s the interesting thing that we’ve chosen to take one thanksgiving out of thousands and make that the one. So there’s a lot—again you coming from North Carolina—there was a lot of concern for quite a while that what we were doing in America was giving a very, very New England look at Thanksgiving and ignoring other regions and not taking into account what their regional traditions would be. And I think, that’s where a lot of this fear, “Well, are we going to worship falsely, or are we going to do false things?” A lot of it’s probably as rooted in culture as it is in faith.

JOHN RUSTIN: When was the Thanksgiving holiday officially established in our nation, and what were the circumstances around that particular proclamation?

BRADLEY BIRZER: There had been a tradition in New England going back to the Pilgrims—certainly so, since the 1620s—of doing this. And it was very much a part of the Calvinist religion that you would have Thanksgivings. And even though the Protestants are obviously not Catholics, and Catholics are constantly having feast and fast days, it didn’t transfer exactly to Protestantism, but it did transfer. And so it was not atypical to have a Thanksgiving feast, to have a celebration. But it really wasn’t—and this is where you start getting into some kind of fascinating but crazy history—it really wasn’t until the 1790s that New England historians started promoting the story of Thanksgiving. The story of John Adams comes out of this as well, kind of promoting him above other Founding Fathers. They even changed the name of what we call the Mayflower Compact. Its original name was the Plymouth Combination. But New England historians in the 1790s thought that might seem too religious, so they renamed it the Mayflower Compact to make it sound more Lockean [a feature of John Locke’s labor theory of property]. So, there was a huge movement in the 1790s to kind of—I’m making up a term here—but to New Englandize America and the founding and the colonial period. And so, you’ve got that great rivalry then between New England and Virginia. And of course with the Civil War, the New England-view wins and Lincoln is the first to make Thanksgiving a permanent national holiday. And he very clearly and intentionally chooses a Massachusetts holiday and a Massachusetts version because the Thanksgiving they’re giving is a Thanksgiving that’s rooted in Plymouth Rock, not in the soil of Virginia.

JOHN RUSTIN: Dr. Birzer, from your perspective as an American historian, what is one of the most compelling Thanksgiving proclamations made by an American president, and why?

BRADLEY BIRZER: I don’t want to sound anti-Lincoln—I’m not at all. I think the Civil War is one of those moments where you’ve got nobility on both sides and so much going on: a hugely messy tragic, romantic moment in American history. So, I think it would be hard not to look at Lincoln’s Thanksgiving Proclamation—where, even though it may be trying to privilege the North, it really is ultimately about a kind of unification. So, it would be hard to top that one simply because, not only is it really the beginning of our modern Thanksgiving, but it was happening at a time where there was so much bloodshed and division. And, I think Lincoln was trying hard, in his own way—and of course through his own failures but also his successes —trying to bring us together. So, that Thanksgiving Proclamation, I think, is brilliant. But I would also go back to some of the Thanksgiving Proclamations that were given by the Second Continental Congress. They’re gorgeous! Going back to the American Revolution. So, it’s a nice tradition and I think it’s one our President and our leaders have usually done well with.

JOHN RUSTIN: Dr. Birzer, for many in our culture, the focus of Thanksgiving—and you’ve kind of referred to this already—but it seems to have shifted from a time of slowing down and gathering with family and friends, and prayerfully considering how much we have to be thankful for, to this frantic Black Friday launch of holiday shopping the day after Thanksgiving, which then leads into an increasingly commercialized Christmas season, and so on and so forth. In your mind, what does this say about our American society today and how might you encourage the listeners of this program to maybe unplug a little bit and get back to more of the roots of what Thanksgiving is intended to be? 

BRADLEY BIRZER: Such a good question. And of course, I can offer my opinion. I’m always a little conflicted because I’m very, very, very pro-free market Libertarian when it comes to market economics. But I’m also—my family and I, we’re practicing Christians. So, it’s very frustrating to see where I think sometimes we abuse our freedom. I wouldn’t make it legal, but I love what Chick-fil-A does by giving no work on Sundays. That, to me, it’s the model of where we should be. I’m so sorry that Chick-fil-A is such a small part of our American capitalist culture. To me, freedom is not just to do what we want. Freedom is also the ability to restrain ourselves. And so, I understand that there are great deals on Black Friday, and a lot of our businesses make a lot of money, but it is frustrating. I’m obviously speaking very personally here, but I would like a holiday to truly be a holiday, a day of rest, a day to think of what is holy, think of what is good, to be with family. And I guess, I prefer that to getting up at three in the morning and heading off to our local box store to get the greatest deal. But, it’s one of the downsides of a free society and I think it’s just one of those things that if we want freedom we have to put up with—but always remembering that we also have the freedom to restrain ourselves and do what’s right as well.

JOHN RUSTIN: That’s a great reminder and a great note to end for our discussion today. And I would just encourage our listeners to try to take a step back and unplug a bit this year and really consider the importance and the historical significance of Thanksgiving in our culture. But also the importance of setting this time aside for family and to ultimately thank God for all of the ways that He has so blessed us individually, our families, and our nation.

And with that, Dr. Birzer, I want to thank you so much for being with us on Family Policy Matters. But I do want to give you an opportunity to tell our listeners where they can go to learn more about the history of Thanksgiving and your other work at Hillsdale College. 

BRADLEY BIRZER: I would encourage, from my own perspective—and this is a very Hillsdale answer—but I would encourage all of your listeners just to go back and really read the Mayflower Compact. It is short. You can read it in about two minutes. We try to read it in my family and it’s one of those things, I think—and it doesn’t matter if you’re Catholic or Protestant, even if you’re secular—there’s such a power in that one paragraph, where you have all of these people on the deck of the Mayflower, covenanting with one another and saying, we can rule ourselves because we have two things: Number one, we have Scripture, and number two we have English Common Law. And that’s all we need. That is to me, one of the most powerful statements in all of history. So that, if you want to ask, “Why does Thanksgiving matter?” It’s because these are a group of women and men who came together and said, “We can make this work.” And they did. Half of them died the first year, but they did ultimately make it work. It’s hard in our day and age, where we’re so dependent on other people doing things for us, I think it’s hard sometimes for us to imagine that God has graced us so much that we ourselves can make our own community and make it work. What a blessing.

JOHN RUSTIN: It absolutely is a blessing! And with that Dr. Bizer, I want to thank you so much for your being with us on Family Policy Matters and for sharing your valuable insights with us and our listeners.

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