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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.

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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.

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