Puritans lacked an Object for their Thanksgivings?

As of the moment I started writing this post, the following headlines graced — if that’s the right word — the top of The Drudge Report.

‘Gang fight’ at Black Friday sale…

Man Punched in Face Pulls Gun On Line-Cutting Shopper…

Woman busted after throwing merchandise…

Thousands storm VICTORIA’S SECRET…

VIDEO: Insane battle over phones…

Mayhem at Nebraska mall where 9 murdered in 2007…

Shoplifter tries to mace security guards…

Men Steal Boy’s Shopping Bag Outside BED, BATH & BEYOND…

Heckler calls them zombies…

Thus, let me begin by saying that I am thankful that The New York Times published its story the other day on the New England laws that exempted people in that region from some of yesterday’s early-onset craziness that gripped our fair land. The story even put one of the crucial P-words in this story right there in the headline: “Where Pilgrims Landed, Thanksgiving Is Kept at Table, Not Mall.”

Thus, before describing the Thanksgiving sale madness, the Gray Lady paused to offer this alternative picture:

PLYMOUTH, Mass. – Here in the birthplace of Thanksgiving, where the Pilgrims first gave thanks in 1621 for their harvest and their survival, some residents are giving thanks this year for something else: the Colonial-era blue laws that prevent retailers from opening their doors on the fourth Thursday of November.

While shoppers in the rest of the country will skip out on Thanksgiving to go to Walmart or Kmart or other big-box stores, William Wrestling Brewster, whose ancestors arrived on the Mayflower and participated in that first Thanksgiving, will limit his activities to enjoying a traditional meal here with his extended family at his parents’ house.

“Thanksgiving is supposed to be about giving thanks for all you have,” said Mr. Brewster, 47, who runs a computer repair business. “I cringe to think what society is doing to itself,” he said of the mercantile mania that threatens one of the least commercial holidays.

So what’s missing from this story.

I am sure that faithful GetReligion readers will be shocked, shocked at my criticism.

Yes, it is true that the story goes out of its way to avoid any Divine Object for the word “thanksgiving,” which is rather strange when one is writing about the Pilgrims and, to be precise, the Puritans (the other crucial P-word in the history of all of this).

However, Thanksgiving is a rather strange bird, in the lineup of American celebrations. It’s a secular holiday that clearly has modified Judeo-Christian roots. I mean, some of those images of families sitting at overloaded tables show the people praying and just as many others do not.

But is it possible to separate the New England laws from their Puritan context? Here is what we end up with in the Times account:

New England’s blue laws were put down by early settlers to enforce proper behavior on Sundays. (The origin of the term is unclear. Some have said the laws were printed on blue paper, while others have said the word “blue” was meant to disparage those like the “blue noses” who imposed rigid moral codes on others.)

Over decades, many of those laws — which banned commerce, entertainment and the sale of alcohol, among other things — were
tossed aside or ignored, or exemptions were granted. In some cases, the statutes were extended to holidays and barred retailers specifically from operating on Thanksgiving or Christmas.

I don’t know. Something seems to be missing here.

Perhaps the historical images at the end of the story will help?

Beyond the malls, Plymouth has its version of a Thanksgiving mob scene. The Plimoth Plantation, a living museum (spelled the old-fashioned way) that tells the story of the original colonists, draws about 4,000 visitors on Thanksgiving Day, about half of whom will have dinner there. …

Among those in the parade Saturday was Rebecca Tuchak, 33, a restaurant manager, who was dressed in Pilgrim garb and riding a float that honored the first Thanksgiving. As she held her 3-month-old daughter, she said she had been staggered to learn that of the original 102 Mayflower passengers, about half had died during their first winter here.

“It’s amazing to think of all the things we have and all the things they didn’t have, and yet they still gave thanks,” she said. “I don’t think you’ll find a group of people more against opening stores on Thanksgiving than us.”

I don’t know. Something basic, something factual, seems to be missing, some Object for all of the thanksgivings at the birth of this feast. Am I alone in thinking this?

Meanwhile, as the news coverage rolls in of the almost demonic goings on today, please help me look for Black Friday coverage that includes a spiritual dimension to all of this chaos and commercialism. Share the URLs in the comments pages.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • JoeMerl

    I don’t know…I could certainly see a spiritual angle here, but if no interviewee brings it up I’m not sure if it’s totally necessary. It would seem weird, for example, if the paper took the time to mention that Blue Books laws were in place because Sunday is the Christian Sabbath.

  • suburbanbanshee

    It would seem weird to people who know. But it would also seem weird not to inform their under-40 readers who don’t know — and there are plenty of those.

  • suburbanbanshee

    I speak as someone who, last year, had a guy insisting on her blog that the Pilgrims weren’t a religious-based group, didn’t have a religious-based government for themselves, and didn’t leave England or Delft for religious reasons.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    matt–I’m not sure what you meant by commenting on the two P words (Pilgrims and Puritans). They were two very separate groups. The Pilgrims (purportedly holding the First Thanksgiving) settled in Plymouth and environs while the Puritans settled in the Salem-Lynn-Boston area.
    And since the Catholic Mass is the celebration of the Holy Eucharist–the prime Catholic liturgical expression of Thanksgiving– The First Thanksgiving in the current United States was celebrated in Florida long before the Plymouth Thanksgiving in a Catholic Mass in, I think, St. Augustine, Florida.
    As for New England holding out against commercializing Thanksgiving–it won’t be for long. This year in the local news media there were repeated siren songs urging the end of Blue laws squelching the passions of shoppers who eagerly want to join those whose method of Thanksgiving is to kneel and worship in the aisles of Macy’s, Target, Wal-Mart . Even some conservative talk show hosts were hammering the idea of having any kind of restrictions on out-of-control commerce.

  • Jerry

    So far I’ve not seen much except that the worship of the “almighty dollar”, hallowed be its name, is moving to a day earlier so that everyone can give thanks for the blessings it provides to some of us. Of course, this season of worship will soon give way to 12/25, when we can further enthrone it with ceremony and ritual as the end of the year sales begin.

    Then again my attitude is a wee bit colored because I just got back from India where I experienced Diwali – a celebration of the triumph of good versus evil which is accompanied by lots of fireworks and good food. Of course since part of Diwali is Laxmi Puja, worship of the goddess of wealth, maybe we’re more alike than it appears at first glance.

  • John M.

    John,

    I’d hazard that while the Pilgrims celebrated the first Thanksgiving, the blue laws owe their origins to the Puritans. I think that was the point tmatt was trying to make.

    And Spanish settlement in Florida didn’t lead to the current United States, nor did that erstwhile “First Thanksgiving” grow into what we celebrate today, making it a historical footnote.

    -John

    • http://theshepherdspresence.wordpress.com Karyl

      Thank you, John, for pointing out the difference between Spanish Florida and the Founding Fathers, most of whom are descendents of those early Separatists. I have done extensive study of the passengers listed on the Mayflower. About half of them came for religious reasons. Originally they started out on the leaky Speedwell, but transferred to the Mayflower. Most of all, Thanksgiving needs to come from the heart and not the head. We have FDR to blame for Black Friday. It started the Christmas shopping a week earlier than the original Thanksgiving and was for purely commercial reasons. Again, it is a matter of the heart when all is boiled down and it is very difficult to legislate moral or religious values. It is always worth a try, though, it seems.


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