Editor’s note: Benjamin Franklin called Thanksgiving a day “of public Felicity,” a time to express gratitude for the “full Enjoyment of Liberty, civil and religious,” as Melanie Kirkpatrick points out in her charming new book, Thanksgiving: The Holiday at the Heart of the American Experience. In this book, Kirkpatrick not only brings to life the very interesting history of Thanksgiving, but she also reminds us of why the day matters. It’s not just a celebration of turkey and football, as wonderful as those things are, but also of gratitude, generosity, and cooperation. What follows is a Q&A with Kirkpatrick.
What inspired you to write a book about Thanksgiving?
I was in downtown Manhattan on September 11, 2001, and watched as the towers fell. Like many Americans after 9/11, I was inspired to think more deeply about what it means to be an American. During that journey, one of the things I did was to read Of Plymouth Plantation by Plymouth’s longtime governor, William Bradford. In that book, Bradford tells the story of the pilgrim’s journey from Holland to America. As Thanksgiving approached, I skipped ahead to the section in his book on the first Thanksgiving with the pilgrims and the Indians. I was very struck by the similarities between their celebration and ours, and I wanted to learn more. There’s not much out there about Thanksgiving for adults. I wanted to write a book that would enhance Thanksgiving for Americans. I hope that by learning more about the holiday as it’s been practiced for nearly 400 years, that we can all understand our country better and have a more meaningful experience on Thanksgiving Day.
I was surprised to see that gratitude was not on Ben Franklin’s list of 13 virtues. Why is it important to practice gratitude?
Cicero called gratitude “the greatest of all virtues.” It’s important to practice gratitude because it gives perspective on one’s life. Without perspective about yourself and your situation, you don’t see the world clearly. Also, as a Christian, I believe in an obligation to express thanks to God for God’s blessings, and to express gratitude to the people around me for everything that they do for me. Thanksgiving is a day to remember all of those blessings. It’s nice to have a day especially set aside to think about gratitude, but it’s important to practice it in everyday life.
You suggest the revival of an old tradition—the five kernels of corn. What is this tradition and why revive it?
In the nineteenth century, some people put five kernels of corn on the Thanksgiving table or on each person’s plate to remind them of the struggle the pilgrims endured coming to America and trying to establish a colony here. The legend goes that the pilgrims’ daily ration in those difficult days was only five kernels of corn. As meager as it was, the pilgrims were still extremely grateful for it. The ritual was also a reminder of another blessing—the pilgrims’ friendship with the Wampanoag Indians. The Wampanoag Indians were the ones at the first Thanksgiving table with the pilgrims. They gave the pilgrims corn and helped them plant it. I think the “five kernels of corn” is a powerful reminder of the ghosts who sit at our Thanksgiving tables with us.
You write: “Thanksgiving has grown up with the country. It reflects our national identity as a grateful, generous, and inclusive people.” We just had this divisive election and here we are just days later with Thanksgiving around the corner. How can this holiday bring us together?
I hope the holiday will be a healing moment in the way it has been at other difficult points in our history. I remember what it was like after September 11 and how Thanksgiving carried special meaning in that year. The same was true, I’m told, for the Thanksgiving after President Kennedy’s assassination. It had special healing powers then and I think it does today, too. The point of Thanksgiving, after all, is to step back and think about your blessings and what you can be grateful for, and those include our democratic institutions. No matter who wins an election, those institutions are firmly in place, and I think now we must rely on them going forward.
As part of my research for this book, I visited Newcomers High School in New York, a school for immigrant children who are learning to adapt to life in America. That trip was very meaningful to me. I asked the students about their expectations for Thanksgiving, and I was very moved by what they had to say. Most of them had never celebrated a single Thanksgiving; this would be their first. Yet they identified with the pilgrims and Indians they were learning about in their classes. It was very personal for them. One boy told me that he was like the pilgrims—he was here for freedom of religion. This boy was from Tibet, which has been occupied by China for decades. His family came to America to practice Buddhism in peace.
The stories of immigrants can help the rest of us realize what we should be grateful for—and of what our country means. Many immigrants come from places that don’t have the liberties we have, and yet many of us take those liberties for granted. But Thanksgiving is a day to remember them and to express our gratitude for them. It’s like Benjamin Franklin said: Thanksgiving is a day “of public Felicity” to express gratitude for the “full Enjoyment of Liberty, civil and religious.”
You write Black Friday gets a bad rap. I think that’s a provocative perspective. Can you explain?
Black Friday represents American prosperity. Sure, it’s a frenzy of shopping. But it’s also the beginning of the Christmas shopping season, which means people are buying gifts for others. Also, Americans are a very generous people, by far the most philanthropic people in the world. And when Americans are more prosperous, they give more money to charitable causes—which is a good thing. The backlash against Black Friday reminds me of the outcry over Thanksgiving-day football in the nineteenth century. The idea then and now was that these other activities obscure the true meaning of Thanksgiving, and that they take people away from hearth and home. In the end, you can’t tell people what to do. Everyone is going to celebrate Thanksgiving in their own way, and that’s okay.
You write about bounty and abundance as part of the Thanksgiving tradition. Let’s talk about decadence and indulgence. Should we practice self-control and moderation, or feel free indulge on Thanksgiving?
I think Thanksgiving is a day for indulgence. One of the things the Newcomers high school students told me was that they couldn’t believe how cheap food was here in America—that you could get an entire meal at McDonald’s for a dollar or two. Because America is so prosperous, we have gotten in the habit of overindulging on many days of the year, not just on Thanksgiving. I’d like to see us practice moderation on the other days, but not on Thanksgiving. Let’s keep Thanksgiving as a special day for indulgence!
Melanie Kirkpatrick is the author of Thanksgiving: The Holiday at the Heart of the American Experience. She is a writer and senior fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington, D.C. She has had a long career at The Wall Street Journal, where her jobs included running the op-ed page, editing the editorials, and serving as deputy editor of the editorial page. She grew up in Buffalo, attended Princeton University, and has lived in Toronto, Tokyo, Hong Kong, and Manhattan. She now resides in rural Connecticut with her husband, Jack David.
Emily Esfahani Smith, who conducted the Q&A with Kirkpatrick, is the author of The Power of Meaning: Crafting a Life That Matters (Crown). She writes about psychology, culture, and relationships. Her writing has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Time, The Atlantic, and other publications. Emily is also a columnist for The New Criterion, as well as an editor at the Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, where she manages the Ben Franklin Circles project, a collaboration with the 92nd Street Y and Citizen University to build purpose and community throughout the nation.