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Vail Symposium hosts virtual program on Thanksgiving’s history from 1621-present

By Katie Coakley
Special to the Daily

We all know or think we know the story of Thanksgiving. If the first image that springs to mind when you think of Thanksgiving is elementary school kids dressed up as Pilgrims, Native Americans and perhaps a turkey, you’re not alone. However, this uniquely American holiday has a rich and little-known history that precedes and spans beyond the famous feast of 1621.

On Wednesday, Nov. 11, from 6-7 p.m. on a Zoom Webinar with the Vail Symposium, award-winning author Melanie Kirkpatrick will share the true story of Thanksgiving, one that spans four centuries of history. Her book, “Thanksgiving: The Holiday at the Heart of the American Experience” delves deep into our nation’s beloved holiday, drawing on newspaper accounts, private correspondence, historical documents and even cookbooks.

The idea for this book actually came in the wake of one of the country’s greatest tragedies. Kirkpatrick worked for the Wall Street Journal from 1980-2009; she was there on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001.

“I was downtown that morning and saw the towers fall and, like every American, was profoundly impacted by that event,” Kirkpatrick said. “In the wake of all that I, again, like a lot of Americans, began to think more about what it meant to be an American.”

She delved into various histories and journals, including “Of Plymouth Plantation,” a journal written over a period of years by William Bradford, the leader of the Plymouth Colony in Massachusetts. As Kirkpatrick read the account of what we call the first Thanksgiving (which is given only about 100 words in the journal), she said that she “was struck by how similar the sentiment was (then) to the sentiment, if not the actual expression, of it that we still have today. So that got me interested. It got me interested in Thanksgiving and how Thanksgiving has become an integral and a very deep part of the American experience.”

The story of Thanksgiving is a rich one with many different characters, layers and threads. Many great historical figures are associated with it: George Washington, who proclaimed the first national Thanksgiving; Abraham Lincoln, who tried to heal the soul of the country when he called for Northerners and Southerners to celebrate the same day; Franklin Roosevelt, who created a hot debate when he changed the holiday’s date. But there are “ordinary” people, too, who made an indelible mark on the holiday.

There are also accounts of the Thanksgivings that happened before the one in Plymouth in 1621 — yes, there were days of thanksgiving in Florida, Texas and Virginia that predate that one. Did you know that the Pilgrims weren’t even part of the Thanksgiving story until the mid-1800s? It’s true. And the background of how football became so ingrained in the holiday? That’s another story.

But amidst all of these stories, the recurring theme is that Thanksgiving is a uniquely American holiday. A few other cultures set aside times for giving thanks, but these are mostly harvest festivals — they trace their origins back to agricultural cycles. Our Thanksgiving holiday is something different. It started as a religious holiday but instead of being exclusive to one religion, it’s a holiday that all religions can celebrate — just as the Pilgrims arrived searching for religious freedom. And though it has morphed a bit (take turkey, for example), the underlying importance of this centuries-old celebration remains.

“The holiday has become very meaningful to people as a time to pause and reflect on our blessings … not just individually, but also as a country,” Kirkpatrick said.

Join Vail Symposium for Kirkpatrick’s enlightening exploration that offers a fascinating look at the meaning of the holiday that we gather together to celebrate on the fourth Thursday of November.

If you go …

What: Thanksgiving: The Holiday at the Heart of the American Experience

When: Wednesday, Nov. 11, 2020. Program from 6-7 p.m.

Where: Zoom Webinar

More information: Attending is free. Please register at http://www.vailsymposium.org for more information.


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