Blogs > Cliopatria > Thanksgiving Evolved ...

Nov 25, 2004 11:50 pm

Thanksgiving Evolved ...

When a smart biologist, a smart historian, and a smart philosopher open a discussion about the public relations of evolutionary science, some good things are bound to come of it. (Myers replies to Burke here.)

Sharon Howard at Early Modern Notes asks if Thanksgiving is not"the classic Invented Tradition." I suppose we'll know the answer when someone points to a tradition which is not"invented." That is, all traditions emerge at some time and change over time. Kwanzaa often strikes me as"the classic Invented Tradition." Are we more likely to see a tradition we don't participate in as"invented"? Well, probably not. I don't think of Passover or Ramadan as invented traditions. Maybe an"invented tradition" is simply one of recent vintage.
Update: My colleagues, Manan Ahmed and Sharon Howard, are prepared to dump"Invented Tradition" in favor of" construction of social memory." This is doctrinal controversy of a very high magnitude. Unlikely to be resolved short of a meeting of the whole College of Cliopatriarchs.

During Cliopatria's first year, bMonday's link to Ken Heineman's post,"The Spirit of the Holidays," brought us thousands of readers. Whatever differences we may have about the wisdom of the invasion of Iraq, American thoughts are with American troops and the Afghanistani and Iraqi people this Thanksgiving. Ken's recommendations about holiday gifts to the troops are still good (or, see: here and here). In thanks for our abundance, I want to add these recommendations for gifts to relieve world hunger and poverty. We should all have reason to give thanks, including, especially today, for the courage of the Ukrainian people.

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Jonathan Dresner - 11/27/2004

I think those of us who grew up with the "Christmas season starts at Thanksgiving" meme (particularly strong for those of us with NY roots and who grew up watching the Macy parade) are going to have to readjust to the "Christmas season starts after Halloween" reality. The only thing that would change that would be a dramatic shift in Thanksgiving practice towards presents or other forms of non-food consumption (say, new china?); otherwise the consumption will drive the culture (seeing as how shopping spaces are a big component of our common spaces, now).

Greg James Robinson - 11/27/2004

I think that Thanksgiving has a particular pedigree as an "invented tradition." I should preface this with a statement of bias: that I have just come off several days of people wishing mne Happy Thanksgiving and asking how I was celebrating. I repeatedly explained that Thanksgiving in Canada (or "Action de grâce" in Quebec) is celebrated in early October--the same time Columbus Day is celebrated in the US (and that therefore I had a norma work week). People would say how curious it was to celebrate Thanksgiving in October, as if it had been fixed in November from the beginning. Thanksgiving was set at the 4th Thursday in November by President Franklin Roosevelt during the Depression. It is not necessary to go back to the roots of the 19th century invention of the Thanksgiving holiday or its causes (privileging the Pilgrim fathers over the Virginia colony as the original Americans, justifying the colonization of the New World, etc.) to note that the holiday has been fixed, not at the harvest season during which the banquet undoubtedly occurred, but at a time that would be most convenient for the onset of the Holiday season (and I will say that much for the American custom--in Canada, with no accepted swart date for the Christmas sell-a-thon, we are deluged with ads and carols as of early November!)

Ralph E. Luker - 11/26/2004

I think that Professor Kilford is correct. Up close and personal, these things can be pretty messy. What Professors Catsam, Reynolds and Dresner suggest is that, as historians, we're obliged to look at hoary traditions with the same skeptical inquiry as we might know those of more recent vintage.
There is a side of these issues that no one has raised and that is degrees of self-consciousness in the creation of traditions. On New Year's Day, my family will have collard greens, black-eyed peas, and corn bread for dinner. It promises good luck in the New Year. For my Yankee-born-and-bred wife, it's an adopted tradition. For me, its a celebration of a traditional Southern folk practice. I doubt that anyone self-consciously created that practice. In that sense, it seems to have an authenticity that it might not otherwise have.

Lloyd Kilford - 11/26/2004

I think that people refer to a tradition as "invented" to diminish its importance. There is a student tradition here at the University of Podunk that is referred to as "invented", even though it is now over 40 years old!

Maybe our queasiness over *recently* invented traditions is that we still remember their invention - as Prof Luker remembers the beginning of Martin Luther King Jr Day. In 100 years it might be an old and dignified holiday, and it might be hard to recall that it didn't begin with the Republic. But right now people can still remember how it was designed, and that makes it less an object of reverence.

Jonathan T. Reynolds - 11/26/2004

Secular Humanist that I am, I tend to see all traditions as "created." Some, particularly the more recent ones, tended to come together faster... in part simply because we are, perhpas, more self-aware about the role traditions/holidays/celibrations play in creating community. Certainly Karinga was thinking about such things when he "assembled" Kwanzaa.

Christmas may not have come together quite as quickly, but what could be a more bizarre assemblage of traditions (and commerce) than this modern holiday?? Combining the celebration of Jesus' birth with the Winter Solstice and Pagan tradition of decorating evergreens? And lets not mention a de-sanctified St. Nick (who is now stuck delivering toys in the company of Elves and talking reindeer, rather than rescuing seafarers).

Jonathan Dresner - 11/26/2004

I'd love to hear more about that! It would be particularly interesting to contrast that seemingly centralized debate (both through Federal intervention and the King Center) with the extremely decentralized process of Gay Pride celebrations' evolution (once someone writes that history).

We could get lost for days in the discussion of civil religion, of course: it seems to me that there's a tense but real exchange between the "American" traditions/values and the religious ones that has affected both in fundamental ways. Liberalism and conservativism have made marks on our faiths, and our religions (and diversity and lack thereof) have taken their toll for good and ill in civil society.

I agree that there are faiths, and cultural moments, that are more syncretic than others. I love Rome in this regard, because it is a hungrily syncretic culture, out of which come some of our strongest orthodoxies....

Ralph E. Luker - 11/26/2004

Jon, I find all of this _very_ interesting and my judgments aren't, of course, exactly pontifical. Some traditions seem much more obviously syncretic than others. I used to believe that some religious traditions were readily adaptive to local syncretic purposes than others. Latin American Catholicism, for example, seemed to me more adaptive in that respect than a New England Calvinism or Protestantism more generally. I'm less certain of that now, with the examples all around us of American Protestant syntheses of traditional Christian themes and American civil religion. It's a corosive mix.
I had the fortune or misfortune, if you will, of working at an office in the Martin Luther King Center here in Atlanta in the early days after the establishment of the King holiday. The close-up on the struggles to control what would be appropriate ways to celebrate the King holiday was revealing. There were important issues, like whether martial units were welcome in parades and how money would be raised and channeled. I'm afraid that Brother King got lost somewhere in the whoopla.

Jonathan Dresner - 11/26/2004


I don't think Kwanzaa is categorically more syncretic or constructed than older liturgical examples, as you suggested in the original post. One of the really interesting moments in the World History survey is the discussion of the practices of Islam, the pre-Islamic roots and universality of some of them, and the way in which they help bind together the community of the faithful both theologically and socially.

Perhaps it's just the Jewish way of historicizing our own practice, but I've been aware of the constructed and intentional aspect of our liturgical and ceremonial practice for a long time. We're quite open about most of it, actually. Of course, losing the temple sacrifice did make it necessary to come up with alternatives, and that process is what got documented.

Kwanzaa seems less artificial to me than most of our civic holidays (Flag day, Labor Day), and secular mercantile spasms (Valentine's day, Mother's day). Perhaps the somewhat disconnected diasporic nature of the practice speaks to me as a Jew in a way that it might not speak to others.

Ralph E. Luker - 11/25/2004

I can tell from the typos and misspellings that this must, in fact, be _the_ Professor Derek Catsam of the University of Texas, Permian Basin. His point is already suggested in what I had posted, though it does seem to me that there is an artificial quality to Kwanzaa (the pell mell of borrowed bits and pieces suggesting artifice) that seems unlike older traditions. It is, in fact, time-honored, not faith, that I am privileging here.

Derek Charles Catsam - 11/25/2004

Ultimatley how are Ramadan or Passover any less invented than anything else that humans have concocted? They either seeped from the primordial ooze or they did not. Duration ought not to confer priviledge. Someone came up with them, right? I am not a Biblical scholar, but these holidays did not exist in Africa when the earliest hominids were walking the earth. Or did they? (Answer: No. They did not.) If the earliest hominids celebrated Rmadan or Passover, then I am wrong. If they did not, and I suspect this is the case, (OK -- being cute here -- I KNOW this is not the case) then Ramadan and Passover are as invented as anything else. But they are or they aren't. Priviledging faiths seems unseemly.