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125 years of Thanksgiving editorials
THANKSGIVING editorials are not unlike dads who say grace only once a year — perfunctory, awkward and occasionally charming. Stack up 125 years' worth from a newspaper with such an outsized role (for good and ill) in the life of a great city, and the effect is like seeing history through a funhouse mirror. Whether the results better resemble the facts in focus or the projections of the lens-maker all depends on the angle.
Thanksgiving is an invitation to take stock, and with the exception of a few quirky preoccupations (the scourge of William Jennings Bryan chief among them), The Times' institutional voice on this day has hewed surprisingly close to that of the public's — World War I isolationism quickly giving way to sympathy with Germany and then hatred of "the Hun"; the whole cycle more or less repeating 25 years later, followed by a Cold War trend toward God-fearing and Red-baiting (even of the Pilgrims). The 1960s provide technocratic solutions to the world's problems, and the early '90s are almost unspeakably morose.
The urge for this page to offer public thanks fades in times of domestic woe (the 1930s and 1970s were virtually silent), then spikes upward in the face of foreign threat. The prose, more than usual, tends toward the purple. And it's always a fine time to hear anew about our forebears in Plymouth, while pausing to remember the less fortunate among us.
In 2006 we won't add much, except to say that we continue to be thankful for the opportunity to come across your breakfast table or computer screen every morning, and we hope you enjoy this trip down memory lane.
Even Democrats are better prepared to observe Thanksgiving Day than they would have been had Bryan been elected, although some of them may not think so and others may not be willing to say so.
On Thanksgiving Day, pumpkin pie, along with Indian pudding, constitutes the orthodox dessert. The pudding recalls the field of maize, waving its tassels in the October sunshine. The pie brings to mind the golden globes raised between the rows of corn. They do not raise Indian corn in the fields of the effete despotism of Europe, and of Indian puddings there are none. They do have occasionally, at Vefours and the Trois Freres in Paris, out of compliment to American customers, a concoction which is announced on the menu as "pie de pumpkin." But pumpkin pie is the one thing that a French chef cannot cook. The pastry part is all right, but "de pumpkin" is flabby and flat, and resembles sweetened sawdust more than anything else.
Shall Russia, broken on the wheel of lawless tyranny; Germany, sick with the burden of staggering defeat; Austria, dragging her bare bones through the empty market-place; Ireland, torn and bleeding from the assassination that lurks by night and the reprisal that strikes at noontime; France, with stern eyes, watching the Red terror in the eastern sky; Britain, irresolute, inert, while unseen hands are shaking to pieces the fabric of her empire; shall all these, indeed, be joyful in the Lord and come before His presence with a song?
Who can contemplate without gloom the picture painted by the National Poultry, Butter and Egg Association of the turkey-less America within the next twenty years? The association, meeting in solemn conclave in Chicago, says it is up to Congress to take steps to save the national bird from speedy extinction. Those familiar with the rapidity with which Congress solves troubles and complications will do well to eat their goodly fill of white meat now.
Though we are very near to war, our natural situation and the long time we have had for preparation should combine to save us many of its horrors if it comes. No invasion looms, no bombings of our great population centers are likely.
For years before 1941, including the national day of thanks which we observed just before Pearl Harbor, peace was a standing item on our Thanksgiving agenda. But if we had known then what we know now — that the enemies of civilization had long been plotting our destruction and were ready to strike — would we have called it peace? A man sitting on a box of dynamite has that kind of peace, but he is not apt to be grateful for it, if he knows there is a sputtering, shortening fuse attached.
It is a mistake to suppose that the United States of America had a secular origin. It was a nonsectarian nation, but a religious nation, at least in its beginnings. It was a New Order of the Ages, but the all-seeing eye of Almighty God is incorporated in its Great Seal (see the back of a one-dollar bill) and even our coins proclaim "In God We Trust." Surely the men who made America great had firm faith in themselves, but this faith was grounded in a firmer faith in God. Today's faith is without such sure support. We have still a certain confidence in our own abilities but, should we fail, we have Social Security to fall back on. We want more security, because even our faith in ourselves grows faint.
When Plymouth was founded in 1620, it was decreed that all property be held in common. Pastor John Robinson, a wiser man than some of the fathers, proposed that the colonists be allowed the incentive of owning the homes they built and the land they improved and two days a week to work for themselves. But he was overruled. For the first two years everything belonged to everyone and corn, fish and fowl went into a common storehouse from which equal shares were passed out by the authorities
Socialism continued in Plymouth and so did hunger and hardship, until 1623, when Gov. William Bradford perceived that God's most devout servants would not submit to authoritarianism in economic matters.
Fully two-thirds of the world today is inadequately fed. Yet, given the current rate of population increase, there will be twice as many people to feed by the year 2000 as there are now — more than 6 billion. How can it be done?
There are really only two answers, neither easy: greatly expanded worldwide agricultural production, with steps taken for effective geographical distribution of food; and a rapid spread of birth control practices.
In a troubled age it has become fashionable to question our national purpose, to fault the uses of our military might, to assume that we must be wrong because others say we are.
Yet in the history of mankind, what other single nation has willingly done so much for so many who are less fortunate, or whose existence is threatened from without?
First it was the terrors of nature, and the Indians; then the French; then the troubles with England; a Revolution whose outcome hung long in doubt; more wars; the cruelty of slavery, whose stain is not yet erased; a terrible civil war; the strains, and the sufferings, of a rapidly expanding nation in an industrial revolution; more terrible wars; a long series of depressions — and before you know it you have traversed a long history of error, folly, suffering, greed and cruelty to arrive at the present predicaments, which are too depressing to relate.
Thanksgiving, in bitter truth, is not a people holiday. It is a day set aside to allow the turkey its revenge. Stupid in life and bred only to be consumed, the turkey leaves the roasting pan with but one thought in its carcass: to bring humiliation to the first human it encounters. It comes before its carver a sly and greasy adversary, oozing juices and contempt, determined to do battle until the bitter end. Pictures in cook books and magazines show the roast turkey as docile, inert, passive. They lie. The turkey is in fact a squirming, slippery menace. It gives no quarter, and plays by no rules. Slice here, and it dodges there. Grab it by one leg, and the other reaches out to hit you in the eye. You could secure the turkey to the cutting board with railroad spikes, and still it would wriggle from your grasp.
Argue though Americans will about this potential war — What is the mission? Has the President really explained it well? — there can be no argument about the sacrifice being made by the Americans there.
Argue though Americans will about the nature of the society we are defending — Why are Saudi women so oppressed? Why are we coming to the aid of a monarchy? — there can be no quarrel that our servicemen and women deserve all our support. While all of them are trained to engage in combat if need be, most of them hope it never comes to that. It's tough for a young person, just a few years out of high school, to be in a foreign land, away from family during the holidays — and having to face the ever-present threat of war.
The first Thanksgiving Day — the official, national holiday we're celebrating today — was the product of downright hectoring by Sarah Josepha Hale, a widowed mother of five who harangued presidents from John Quincy Adams to Abraham Lincoln to declare the day a holiday
As editor of first the Ladies' Magazine and then the popular Godey's Lady's Book, she launched her Thanksgiving with an 1827 editorial. She pushed the idea year after year, complete with Thanksgiving menus and themes. In October 1863, in the midst of the Civil War, she editorialized that a single thanksgiving day would help put aside "sectional feeling" and unify the nation. That convinced Lincoln. Thanksgiving Day became official.