The Washington Post
Thanksgiving: The Biography of an American Holidayby James W. Baker
In this, the first in-depth study of the most American of holidays, James Baker sweeps away lingering myths and misconceptions to show how this celebration day was born and grew to be an essential part of our national spirit. Thanksgiving: The Biography of an American Holiday opens with an overview of the popular mythos of the holiday before discussing its
In this, the first in-depth study of the most American of holidays, James Baker sweeps away lingering myths and misconceptions to show how this celebration day was born and grew to be an essential part of our national spirit. Thanksgiving: The Biography of an American Holiday opens with an overview of the popular mythos of the holiday before discussing its possible religious and cultural precedents. This classic Yankee holiday is examined in historical and contemporary detail that embraces everything from proclamations, sermons, and local and regional traditions to family reunions, turkey dinners, and recipes. Thanksgiving’s evolving face is illustrated with charming and often revealing period prints that chart our changing attitudes: the influence of Victorian sentiment in Thanksgiving’s development, Progressive utilitarianism, intellectual “debunking,” patriotic wartime reclamation, and 1960s-era protest. Thanksgiving remains controversial up to the present day, as Mayflower descendants, Native Americans, and commercial exploiters compete for the American public’s opinion of the holiday’s contemporary significance and its future status. This is an intelligent and illuminating introduction to a beloved holiday and a fascinating cultural history of America and Americana.
The Washington Post
“Baker traces how the [Thanksgiving] celebration has changed over the years. In the 18th century, Thanksgiving was viewed as a day for family reunions, and the Pilgrims were remembered as the symbolic founders of New England. But the connection between the two had been lost by the time George Washington issued the first presidential Thanksgiving proclamation in 1789. . . Baker notes that the struggle over the significance of the Thanksgiving holiday continues, with historical accuracy often the victim of political advantage. But, he argues, ‘the holiday’s cultural vigor is actually demonstrated by the conflicts and debates that surround it.’ For, he observes, ‘debate indicates relevance, and the dispute over the appropriate role of Thanksgiving in American life demonstrates that the holiday is very much alive and still evolving.’”—Boston Globe
“James Baker, a former researcher at Plimoth Plantation in Massachusetts, does not wag a scholar’s dour finger at what has become a turkey-and-football jamboree. But in his comprehensive and readable history of the holiday, he does remind us that Thanksgiving is more than ‘ubiquitous, mass-produced images of buckle-hatted Pilgrims, generic Indians, turkeys, pumpkins, and cornstalks.’ For the Puritans aboard the Mayflower, Thanksgiving was a religious service to acknowledge God’s providence. Its focus was prayer, not festivity. And while the Massachusetts Pilgrims did celebrate a harvest holiday in fall 1621 with friendly Wampanoags, Baker argues that this landmark event ‘meets none of the qualifications for an orthodox Thanksgiving.’”—Washington Post
“[A] thorough and readable history. . . . The actual purpose of this book is to prove once again that one of the nation’s beloved holidays is an ‘invented tradition,’ discontinuous in its history and varied in the types of ways it has been celebrated. Baker examines a vast range of cultural materials from postcards to children’s books to Hollywood films of the 1990s. There is evidence about how people actually celebrate this holiday, but it is not as important as the theme of myth-making and contested history. Baker demonstrates the commonsense; not just that myths take on a life of their own but that in speaking to ‘hopes and fears,’ myths are much more emotionally satisfying than truths.”—Journal of Social History
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Meet the Author
JAMES W. BAKER was the director of research at Plimoth Plantation for many years and has acted as an authority for numerous Thanksgiving Day exhibits, articles, newscasts, and children’s books.
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