Be thank­ful you have some­thing to grum­ble at

Cecil Whig - - FRONT PAGE -

”Oh, don’t the days seem lank and long When all goes right and noth­ing goes wrong, And isn’t your life ex­tremely flat With noth­ing what­ever to grum­ble at!” — Gil­bert and Sul­li­van

— At this shank end of a shabby year, Amer­i­cans still can be thank­ful: They do not have the prob­lem of noth­ing to grum­ble about. As we steel our­selves for Thanks­giv­ing’s oblig­a­tory routs and rev­els — does any­one re­ally like turkey? or Un­cle Ralph, who keeps turn­ing up, like a bad penny? — Amer­i­cans are cud­geling their brains for rea­sons to feel grat­i­tude. So, here­with a call for ev­ery­one to tem­per gloom with lu­cid­ity. Things could be worse. And they of­ten have been while Amer­i­cans nev­er­the­less were giv­ing thanks.

In her new book “Thanks­giv­ing: The Hol­i­day at the Heart of the Amer­i­can Ex­pe­ri­ence,” Me­lanie Kirk­patrick traces the evo­lu­tion of this cel­e­bra­tion from the Pil­grims’ 1621 feast with mem­bers of the Wam­panoag tribe. Congress urged Ge­orge Washington to “rec­om­mend” to the peo­ple a day of thanks­giv­ing, which he did. Thomas Jef­fer­son, how­ever, did not feel “au­tho­rized” to pro­mote this “in­ter­med­dling” of gov­ern­ment with re­li­gious ob­ser­vance.

On Oct. 3, 1863, Pres­i­dent Lin­coln pro­claimed that hence­forth the last Thurs­day in Novem­ber would be an of­fi­cial national hol­i­day. He did so to thank God — and His in­stru­ment, the Union army — for the na­tion’s im­prov­ing for­tunes of war. And specif­i­cally for the vic­tory at Get­tys­burg, where 47 days later Lin­coln gave a short speech ded­i­cat­ing a ceme­tery. Thank­ful­ness did not seem, and was not, in­ap­pro­pri­ate even in a con­text of Amer­i­can deaths in hith­erto unimag­in­able num­bers. Ex­actly 100

WASHINGTON

years later — 53 years ago — Thanks­giv­ing fell six days af­ter the mur­der of a pres­i­dent.

In 1939, the New Deal hav­ing failed to ban­ish the De­pres­sion — un­em­ploy­ment was 17.2 per­cent — Franklin Roo­sevelt un­lim­bered the heavy ar­tillery, the plucky Amer­i­can shop­per. Happy days would be here again be­cause FDR was mov­ing Thanks­giv­ing from the last Thurs­day in Novem­ber to the third. In 1933, his first year in of­fice, Novem­ber had five Thurs­days and Thanks­giv­ing was on the 30th, and in 1939 it was again set to land on that day, to the hor­ror of the na­tion’s big­gest re­tail­ers, who cov­eted more post-Thanks­giv­ing shop­ping days.

But a Brook­lyn hab­er­dasher wanted the later date: “If the large de­part­ment stores are over­crowded dur­ing the shorter shop­ping pe­riod be­fore Christ­mas, the over­flow will come, nat­u­rally, to the neigh­bor­hood store.”

Gen­er­ally, the na­tion­wide re­ac­tion was, Kirk­patrick writes, “swift and vo­cif­er­ous.” The pas­tor at the Church of the Pil­grim­age in Ply­mouth, Mas­sachusetts, lamented that “the sa­cred has given way to the sec­u­lar forces of life.” Alf Lan­don, the los­ing Repub­li­can can­di­date against FDR in 1936, said the pres­i­dent has an­nounced this change “to an un­pre­pared coun­try with the om­nipo­tence of a Hitler.” Twenty-two of the 48 states adopted what Repub­li­cans cheek­ily called Franks­giv­ing on Nov. 23, an­other 23 stayed with Nov. 30, and three states cel­e­brated both days.

Like much of the rest of the New Deal, mov­ing Thanks­giv­ing ear­lier failed to be an economic bless­ing. Nine­teen days af­ter Pearl Har­bor, FDR signed a joint con­gres­sional res­o­lu­tion mak­ing the fourth Thurs­day in Novem­ber Thanks­giv­ing.

To­day’s pres­i­dent-elect, who is not al­ways a hu­man sun­beam, seems to re­gard the na­tion (“a hell­hole”) as akin to tun­dra in that any­thing done to it will im­prove it. Per­haps his deft pres­i­den­tial touch on the tiller of the ship of state will soon have Amer­ica sail­ing to­ward great­ness. But his com­ing as­cen­sion to the ship’s bridge might cause a po­lar frost, fol­lowed by scorch­ing heat, at many Thanks­giv­ing din­ner ta­bles. Un­cle Ralph, squint­ing at Aunt Emma’s de­fi­antly worn “I’m With Her” but­ton, is go­ing to say, with mea­sured mal­ice, “I wish you were.” At least there will not be anes­thetiz­ing bore­dom caused by the turkey’s tryp­to­phan.

Mod­ern pres­i­den­tial cam­paigns, like the pres­i­dency it­self, are too much with us, which makes it dif­fi­cult to rel­e­gate pol­i­tics to the hin­ter­land of our minds. Shortly be­fore Thanks­giv­ing 2013, the stu­dent gov­ern­ment of Barnard Col­lege in New York City sent to all stu­dents this email: “Happy Turkey Week. Thanks­giv­ing is com­pli­cated. We urge you not to for­get that this hol­i­day com­mem­o­rates geno­cide and Amer­i­can im­pe­ri­al­ism. But, en­joy the week off and make it into some­thing mean­ing­ful.”

The email’s au­thors de­serve the fate of Wil­liam Veazie, a Mas­sachusetts church war­den who in 1696 was spot­ted plow­ing a field on the day des­ig­nated for Thanks­giv­ing. Kirk­patrick says he was fined 10 pounds and sen­tenced to an hour in the pil­lory in Bos­ton.

Ge­orge Will is a syn­di­cated colum­nist. Contact him at georgewill@wash­post.com.

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