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The Biography of an American Holiday
James W. Baker; Peter J. Gomes, fwd.

Revisiting New England

New Hampshire
2009 • 288 pp. 40 illus. 6 x 9 1/4"
American History / Holidays (secular)

$24.95 Paperback, 978-1-58465-801-6
$25.99 Ebook, 978-1-58465-874-0

Check your ebook retailer or local library for ebook availability.

“Baker has incorporated all the available research on Thanksgiving and enriched it with his unparalleled access to original sources as the former director of research at Plimoth Plantation. Most appealing... [continued in Reviews below]”—Booklist

The origins and ever-changing story of America’s favorite holiday

In this, the first in-depth study of the most American of holidays, James Baker sweeps away lingering myths and misconceptions to show how this celebration day was born and grew to be an essential part of our national spirit. Thanksgiving: The Biography of an American Holiday opens with an overview of the popular mythos of the holiday before discussing its possible religious and cultural precedents. This classic Yankee holiday is examined in historical and contemporary detail that embraces everything from proclamations, sermons, and local and regional traditions to family reunions, turkey dinners, and recipes. Thanksgiving’s evolving face is illustrated with charming and often revealing period prints that chart our changing attitudes: the influence of Victorian sentiment in Thanksgiving’s development, Progressive utilitarianism, intellectual “debunking,” patriotic wartime reclamation, and 1960s-era protest. Thanksgiving remains controversial up to the present day, as Mayflower descendants, Native Americans, and commercial exploiters compete for the American public’s opinion of the holiday’s contemporary significance and its future status. This is an intelligent and illuminating introduction to a beloved holiday and a fascinating cultural history of America and Americana.

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Reviews / Endorsements

“Baker has incorporated all the available research on Thanksgiving and enriched it with his unparalleled access to original sources as the former director of research at Plimoth Plantation. Most appealing about this book is that it has been produced by an expert on the topic, and one who is also a Plymouth, MA, native. He shows us how Thanksgiving is seen through each generation's reality, having morphed from a holiday for pilgrim hats and turkeys to a cause for Native American protests to a holy day to several ancient holidays combined and a full-scale orgy of food and football. Thanksgiving is not the holiday you think it is and will not be the holiday you know now in 100 years, but it can be whatever holiday you need. There is now a desire to make it an international holiday-Who knows? . . . . This is destined to become the accepted text for research on the history and myth of this most American holiday, and it will be an enjoyable, fascinating read both for students and for anyone looking for a good story.”—Booklist

Baker traces how the [Thanksgiving] celebration has changed over the years. In the 18th century, Thanksgiving was viewed as a day for family reunions, and the Pilgrims were remembered as the symbolic founders of New England. But the connection between the two had been lost by the time George Washington issued the first presidential Thanksgiving proclamation in 1789. . . Baker notes that the struggle over the significance of the Thanksgiving holiday continues, with historical accuracy often the victim of political advantage. But, he argues, ‘the holiday’s cultural vigor is actually demonstrated by the conflicts and debates that surround it.’ For, he observes, ‘debate indicates relevance, and the dispute over the appropriate role of Thanksgiving in American life demonstrates that the holiday is very much alive and still evolving.’”—Boston Globe

“James Baker, a former researcher at Plimoth Plantation in Massachusetts, does not wag a scholar’s dour finger at what has become a turkey-and-football jamboree. But in his comprehensive and readable history of the holiday, he does remind us that Thanksgiving is more than ‘ubiquitous, mass-produced images of buckle-hatted Pilgrims, generic Indians, turkeys, pumpkins, and cornstalks.’ For the Puritans aboard the Mayflower, Thanksgiving was a religious service to acknowledge God’s providence. Its focus was prayer, not festivity. And while the Massachusetts Pilgrims did celebrate a harvest holiday in fall 1621 with friendly Wampanoags, Baker argues that this landmark event ‘meets none of the qualifications for an orthodox Thanksgiving.’”—Washington Post

“[A] thorough and readable history. . . . The actual purpose of this book is to prove once again that one of the nation’s beloved holidays is an ‘invented tradition,’ discontinuous in its history and varied in the types of ways it has been celebrated. Baker examines a vast range of cultural materials from postcards to children’s books to Hollywood films of the 1990s. There is evidence about how people actually celebrate this holiday, but it is not as important as the theme of myth-making and contested history. Baker demonstrates the commonsense; not just that myths take on a life of their own but that in speaking to ‘hopes and fears,’ myths are much more emotionally satisfying than truths.”—Journal of Social History

“James W. Baker has given a lucid and interesting account of the Thanksgiving holiday. Baker also does well in placing the Thanksgiving holiday in its historical context. He shows how Thanksgiving took on new meaning during larger events such as the Revolutionary War, Industrial Revolution, Civil War, Great Depression, World War II, and the Civil Rights movement. Furthermore, he exposes the myths that most of us are taught about Thanksgiving from youth, but does so with a balanced approach. His aim is historical accuracy, not moral judgment. I recommend this book to any interested in American history, the Pilgrims, or the Thanksgiving holiday.”Historical Journal of Massachusetts

Well written and nicely illustrated, this most extensive treatment of Thanksgiving’s cultural history to date is a significant contribution to American studies . . . Essential.”Choice

“For good or ill Americans have always considered themselves exceptional. This remarkable self image first appeared on a fall day in 1621 when the Pilgrims gathered ‘so [that] we might after a special manner rejoice together’ and reflect on the ‘special providence’ God had granted them. Their Native American guests watched bemused. Like ‘Camelot’ Baker writes ‘there once was a time when with the best intentions, two very different cultures came together.’ From that moment on Thanksgiving has become the most persistent, if not controversial, celebration in America. Perfectly historical (mythological?) and encrusted over the centuries in hyperbole and invention, it has nonetheless survived as one of the least pretentious of all our national holidays dedicated to simple fare and family gathering. No one but Jim Baker could unravel the true meaning of this holiday with such expertise and grace. By explaining ‘Thanksgiving’ Baker goes to heart of revealing American character."—William M. Fowler, Jr., Distinguished Professor of History, Northeastern University

"For anyone interested in New England and America and the lengths to which our collective fascination with the past influences what we do today, James Baker's Thanksgiving: The Biography of an American Holiday is a must read. Combining a lifetime of research with a wonderfully readable prose style, Baker has created a tour de force of historical and cultural analysis."—Nathaniel Philbrick, author of Mayflower

“The history of this quintessentially American holiday is both more complex and hotly disputed than most of us gathered around the Thanksgiving dinner table realize. James Baker convincingly argues that there is no direct line of descent from the Pilgrim harvest festival of 1621 to the modern American celebration. Instead, Baker leads us on a fascinating and circuitous route through Puritan days of fasting and thanksgiving and Yankee celebrations of Forefather’s Day right up to the American Indian Movement’s “Day of Mourning.” Little in the way of evidence escapes the eye of this keen cultural historian; he shows us early nineteenth-century recipes for turkey and all the appropriate fixings; the first (though surprising late) visual images of the Pilgrim Fathers and their Native guests; classroom efforts to Americanize recent immigrants through pageants and the ubiquitous cut-out paper decorations; and the floats of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade. Baker serves up an appropriately rich feast for the occasion.”—John W. Tyler, Editor of Publications, The Colonial Society of Massachusetts

JAMES W. BAKER was the director of research at Plimoth Plantation for many years and has acted as an authority for numerous Thanksgiving Day exhibits, articles, newscasts, and children’s books.

Sat, 20 Oct 2018 15:28:13 -0500