Menus Subscribe Search

Academic Research Does Not Take Holidays Off

• November 24, 2009 • 9:00 AM

There is, in fact, a surprising amount of scholarship on the subject of Thanksgiving, a uniquely American celebration marked by rituals that lend themselves to a wide range of interpretations.

We gather together some of the more provocative papers of recent years, which are guaranteed to enliven the dinner table by providing fresh fodder for family squabbles.

Genocide, With Stuffing and Gravy
Anthropologist Janet Siskind of Rutgers University views the Thanksgiving holiday in sociopolitical terms in her 1992 paper “The Invention of Thanksgiving.” The traditional gathering, she writes, “subtly expresses and reaffirms values and assumptions about cultural and social unity, about identity and history, about inclusion and exclusion.”

She views the holiday, which ritually re-enacts a feast first held by the Pilgrims and their Native American neighbors in 1621, as a sort of welcoming ceremony for newcomers to the nation. “Participation in this ritual transforms a collection of immigrants into Americans by connecting them to a cultural history stretching back to the founding of the country,” she writes.

Given that entirely reasonable analysis, it is a bit jolting to read further into the paper and find the following sentence: “The stuffed turkey represents the Native Americans, sacrificed and consumed in order to bring civilization to the New World.”

Now there’s an assertion that’ll make you choke on your giblet gravy. The footnote that follows it reads: “Although I have found no other author who suggests this symbolism, there is a cartoonist who graphically showed a Pilgrim family grouped around a table, poised to eat an American Indian, served on a platter with an apple in his mouth and already missing several body parts. The caption says: ‘For history’s sake, let’s say it was a turkey.’”

We can be thankful she spared us her thoughts on candied yams.

Carving Out a Room for a Safety Blitz
Siskind’s concept of conquest and cannibalism aside, Thanksgiving has traditionally been seen as a rather gentle holiday celebrating peace and coexistence. So how did it become associated with the violent, aggressive sport of football? Several scholars have asked the question, and while their answers are speculative, one thing is certain: Football on Thanksgiving goes way back. According to historian Elizabeth Pleck of the University of Illinois, the Intercollegiate Football Association scheduled its first championship game on Thanksgiving Day 1876.

The games were broadcast on radio by the mid-1920s and on television by the mid-1950s — a development that, in her view, helped reinforce traditional gender roles. While the women were cooking or cleaning in the kitchen, the men gathered around the set.

“One function of football, even enjoyed vicariously, was to reaffirm men’s bonds with other men and their masculinity — to inject some manliness into the sentimentality,” Pleck writes. “Listening to football was an additional masculine element that followed the ritual of carving the turkey: Man the gladiator side by side with man the hunter.”

The Holiday That Failed to Stop the Civil War
When you are giving thanks to specific individuals this year, don’t forget to include Sarah Josepha Hale. The editor of Godey’s magazine (widely regarded as the Miller-McCune of its day), Hale began issuing yearly editorials in 1846 encouraging the “great American festival” of Thanksgiving, which at the time was celebrated only in New England. Hale sent letters urging its celebration to many of the nation’s political and military leaders, in the hope that a new national holiday would unite the country and help avert a civil war.

We all know how that effort turned out. But one recipient of her correspondence, Abraham Lincoln, ultimately did take her advice. The president declared a national day of thanksgiving in November 1863, in part to commemorate the battle of Gettysburg.

Pleck of the University of Illinois provides this information in her 1999 paper “The Making of the Domestic Occasion: The History of Thanksgiving in the United States.” She contends that the real impetus for the holiday was the changing economic environment in the mid- to late 19th century, which found more and more workers moving off the farm and to the cities.

“As a holiday of ‘family homecoming,’ Thanksgiving eased the social dislocations of the industrial and commercial revolutions,” she writes. “The ritual of returning home at Thanksgiving … made it possible to reconcile individualism and obligation to family. A man could be self-made and an obedient son, so long as he was reunited with his family for Thanksgiving.”

Weighty Findings
For all its symbolic significance, the Thanksgiving ritual does have one real-world result: It makes us fatter. Or does it? Two recent studies come to different conclusions. A team of researchers led by Holly Hull of the New York Obesity Research Center measured the weight of 94 University of Oklahoma students before and after Thanksgiving. In a 2006 paper, they reported an average weight gain of half a kilogram (a little more than one pound) over the brief break. The greatest amount of weight was gained by students who were already overweight or obese.

Another 2006 study, also headed by Hull, looked at weight gain over the entire holiday period from Thanksgiving through New Year’s Day and reported more nuanced results. Again looking at a group of college students, the researchers found that total body weight was unchanged over the six weeks, but the participants’ percentage of body fat increased significantly. They conclude: “With recent evidence showing marked morbidity and mortality to be associated with increased body fat … (focusing on) body weight alone may underestimate the potentially deleterious effects of the holiday season.” So don’t feel too smug when you step off that scale; the dial may be deceiving.

This was originally published in the November-December 2008 issue of Miller-McCune magazine.

Sign up for our free e-newsletter.

Are you on Facebook? Become our fan.

Follow us on Twitter.

Add our news to your site.

Tom Jacobs
Staff writer Tom Jacobs is a veteran journalist with more than 20 years experience at daily newspapers. He has served as a staff writer for The Los Angeles Daily News and the Santa Barbara News-Press. His work has also appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and Ventura County Star.

More From Tom Jacobs

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

July 25 • 4:00 PM

Flying Blind: The View From 30,000 Feet Puts Everything in Perspective

Next time you find yourself in an airplane, consider keeping your phone turned off and the window open.


July 25 • 2:00 PM

Trophy Scarves: Race, Gender, and the Woman-as-Prop Trope

Social inequality unapologetically laid bare.


July 25 • 1:51 PM

Confusing Population Change With Migration

A lot of population change is baked into a region from migration that happened decades ago.


July 25 • 1:37 PM

Do Not Tell Your Kids That Eating Vegetables Will Make Them Stronger

Instead, hand them over in silence. Or, market them as the most delicious snack known to mankind.



July 25 • 11:07 AM

The West’s Groundwater Is Being Sucked Dry

Scientists were stunned to discover just how much groundwater has been lost from beneath the Colorado River over the past 10 years.


July 25 • 10:00 AM

Shelf Help: New Book Reviews in 100 Words or Less

What you need to know about Bad Feminist, XL Love, and The Birth of Korean Cool.



July 25 • 8:00 AM

The Consequences of Curing Childhood Cancer

The majority of American children with cancer will be cured, but it may leave them unable to have children of their own. Should preserving fertility in cancer survivors be a research priority?


July 25 • 6:00 AM

Men Find Caring, Understanding Responses Sexy. Women, Not So Much

For women looking to attract a man, there are advantages to being a caring conversationalist. But new research finds it doesn’t work the other way around.


July 25 • 4:00 AM

Arizona’s Double-Talk on Execution and Torture

The state is certain that Joseph Wood’s death was totally constitutional. But they’re looking into it.


July 24 • 4:00 PM

Overweight Americans Have the Lowest Risk of Premature Death

Why do we use the term “normal weight” when talking about BMI? What’s presented as normal certainly isn’t the norm, and it may not even be what’s most healthy.


July 24 • 2:00 PM

California’s Lax Policing of the Fracking Industry Has Put the Drought-Stricken State in a Terrible Situation

The state’s drought has forced farmers to rely on groundwater, even as aquifers have been intentionally polluted due to exemptions for the oil industry.


July 24 • 12:00 PM

What’s in a Name? The Problem With Washington’s Football Team

A senior advisor to the National Congress of American Indians once threw an embarrassing themed party that involved headdresses. He regrets that costume now, but knows his experience is one many others can relate to.


July 24 • 11:00 AM

How Wildlife Declines Are Leading to Slavery and Terrorism

As wildlife numbers dwindle, wildlife crimes are rising—and that’s fueling a raft of heinous crimes committed against humans.


July 24 • 10:58 AM

How the Supremes Pick Their Cases—and Why Obamacare Is Safe for Now

The opponents of Obamacare who went one for two in circuit court rulings earlier this week are unlikely to see their cases reach the Supreme Court.



July 24 • 9:48 AM

The People Who Are Scared of Dogs

While more people fear snakes or spiders, with dogs everywhere, cynophobia makes everyday public life a constant challenge.


July 24 • 8:00 AM

Newton’s Needle: On Scientific Self-Experimentation

It is all too easy to treat science as a platform that allows the observer to hover over the messiness of life, unobserved and untouched. But by remembering the role of the body in science, perhaps we humanize it as well.


July 24 • 6:00 AM

Commercializing the Counterculture: How the Summer Music Festival Went Mainstream

With painted Volkswagen buses, talk of “free love,” and other reminders of the Woodstock era replaced by advertising and corporate sponsorships, hippie culture may be dying, but a new subculture—a sort of purgatory between hipster and hippie—is on the rise.


July 24 • 5:00 AM

In Praise of Our Short Attention Spans

Maybe there’s a good reason why it seems like there’s been a decline in our our ability to concentrate for a prolonged period of time.


July 24 • 4:00 AM

How Stereotypes Take Shape

New research from Scotland finds they’re an unfortunate product of the way we process and share information.


July 23 • 4:00 PM

Who Doesn’t Like Atheists?

The Pew Research Center asked Americans of varying religious affiliations how they felt about each other.


July 23 • 2:00 PM

We Need to Start Tracking Patient Harm and Medical Mistakes Now

Top patient-safety experts call on Congress to step in and, among other steps, give the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention wider responsibility for measuring medical mistakes.


July 23 • 12:19 PM

How a CEO’s Fiery Battle Speeches Can Shape Ethical Behavior

CEO war speech might inspire ethical decisions internally and unethical ones among competing companies.


Follow us


Subscribe Now

Do Not Tell Your Kids That Eating Vegetables Will Make Them Stronger

Instead, hand them over in silence. Or, market them as the most delicious snack known to mankind.

The West’s Groundwater Is Being Sucked Dry

Scientists were stunned to discover just how much groundwater has been lost from beneath the Colorado River over the past 10 years.

How Wildlife Declines Are Leading to Slavery and Terrorism

As wildlife numbers dwindle, wildlife crimes are rising—and that's fueling a raft of heinous crimes committed against humans.

How a CEO’s Fiery Battle Speeches Can Shape Ethical Behavior

CEO war speech might inspire ethical decisions internally and unethical ones among competing companies.

Modern Technology Still Doesn’t Protect Americans From Deadly Landslides

No landslide monitoring or warning systems are being used to protect vulnerable communities.

The Big One

Today, the United States produces less than two percent of the clothing purchased by Americans. In 1990, it produced nearly 50 percent. July/August 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.