Why Black Friday is More American than Thanksgiving

I hope everyone had a wonderful Thanksgiving, with all the traditional festivities, food and family squabbles. If you want to vent about that last one, Slacktivist has an open thread for those who have been dealing with Fox Geezer Syndrome.

Another tradition has to be observed: the yearly lecture about how we should all be giving thanks to God. This year, Thomas Kidd is doing the honors here at Patheos. Kidd wants to remind us that Thanksgiving was started by the Pilgrims in order to give thanks to God, and that we should remember that rather than indulging in over-consumption.

Frankly, this seems silly. Harvest festivals are as old as agriculture. They predate any particular religion. But let’s look at our current version of the festival.

Pilgrim’s Progress

Consider the usual American Thanksgiving spread: turkey, cranberries, squash, corn (maize) and pumpkin. All of these are New World crops, which the Pilgrims would have learned about from the natives.[1] The Native Americans are always the missing half of the Thanksgiving equation, absolutely essential but usually ignored.

What did they think of the proceedings and the feast? Since they weren’t Christian, I doubt Kidd cares. In truth, perhaps we should be offering thanks to the spirits that the Native Americans believed in. For that you’re better off visiting The Wild Hunt, but for now let’s look at the Pilgrims again.

Kidd paints that Pilgrims as seekers of religious freedom, but he lampshades the problem of that idea with the line, “The Netherlands offered the Separatists religious liberty, but the Pilgrims also became concerned about the negative influences of living in such a culturally diverse society. ”

I believe it was Garrison Keillor who said that the Pilgrims went in search of “levels of religious intolerance that were unavailable to them in England.” They were Puritans – the root is “pure” – and they sought a pure church and government, untainted by any lingering Catholic influences or foreign ideas. The Dutch merchant empire, with its cosmopolitan ideas and famous Dutch religious toleration, was antithetical to their mission.

What Kidd omits is that those revoltingly tolerant Dutch had already settled in the new world, a decade before the Pilgrims. In 1609, Henry Hudson left a small colony of fur traders on a river island near where the Mohawk and Hudson Rivers combined. Several years later a real settlement was established along the Hudson.

A series of forts would later be built; Fort Nassau and then Fort Orange. A small community would grow around Fort Orange, and it was given the name Beverwijck. After the British takeover in 1664, the town was renamed Albany. It is the oldest continually inhabited European settlement in North America.

Black Felt Hats: the 17th Century’s Must Have Gift

The town’s original name – Beverwijck or the more common anglicised Beverwyck – gives you a good idea about why the colony was established. It translates from the Old Dutch as “beaver district,” and jokes aside, beaver was why it existed. Beaver pelts, felted to make those impressive black hats you see in Rembrandt paintings, were big business.

In other words, the Dutch had come to America in order to make a buck. And here we can know what the natives thought of this practice, because they frequently outdid the Dutch. The usual stories portray the Indians as being naive for having sold Manhattan for $24.[2] Setting aside the absurdities of the currency conversion, the Indians actually gave as good as they got.

It’s true that the semi-nomadic natives didn’t consider land something that could be owned, but they were certainly willing the trade for the use of the land. Native tribes had been making treaties like that for centuries. The natives sold the Dutch merchants the right to settle on Manhattan island, but the natives continued to live there as well. As Russell Shorto points out in The Island at the Center of the World, those natives continued to profit off the Dutch for decades to come.

So making a buck (or guilder, or wampum, or tulip bulb) is a fine old American tradition that predates Thanksgiving. What’s interesting is that the Dutch toleration was often an outgrowth of this profit seeking. While Boston was hanging Quakers, the Dutch West India Company had decided that removing them would be too disruptive for business. When local authorities wanted to prevent Jews from settling along the Hudson, the Company overruled them. They explained that the Company had taken a loss in Brazil and needed the money from Jewish investors.

Both the Pilgrims and the Dutch were soon overtaken by the British, but both have left out-sized legacies on their region. But while the New Englanders were stabbing each other in the back for not being sufficiently Calvinist, the Dutch influenced New Yorkers were building a cosmopolitan culture based on commercial capitalism.

I’m not one to shouting the virtues of our culture of consumption. I avoid the malls from mid-October to mid-January (I call it “black quarter”). But America owes less to the Pilgrims and their harvest festival than it does to the tolerant, acquisitive Dutch merchants.


[1] I heard one historian suggest that the only native food the new immigrants would have recognized was eel, since eels spawn in the Atlantic and travel to both old world and new. I looked all over the supermarket for this traditional dish, but I couldn’t find any. I guess all the other holiday shoppers got to it first.

[2] There’s a hilarious version of this myth, courtesy of Washington Irving: “The true version is, that Oloffe Van Kortlandt bargained for just so much land as a man could cover with his nether garments. The terms being concluded, he produced his friend Mynheer Ten Broeck, as the man whose breeches were to be used in measurement. The simple savages, whose ideas of a man’s nether garments had never expanded beyond the dimensions of a breech clout, stared with astonishment and dismay as they beheld this bulbous-bottomed burgher peeled like an onion, and breeches after breeches spread forth over the land until they covered the actual site of this venerable city.”

This is even funnier if you know the legend of the founding of Carthage, and that Ten Broeck is a famous Dutch merchant family.

  • blotonthelandscape

    Vorjack, I don’t think this gets said enough, but your history lessons are always fascinating and funny. Thanks!

  • vasaroti

    Just wanted to toss in that the dietary restrictions of Lent are based on ancient livestock management practices. The no-kill spring season is sort of the bookend to the harvest fest’s “kill it now, we can’t afford to feed it through the winter” rationale. The fact that Catholicism has been able to convince so many people that they’re eating / not eating for religious reasons rather than practical ones may indicate something about the urban foundations of the religion.

  • http://jingreed.typepad.com Jing-Reed

    I too enjoy Vorjack’s history lessons [my father was a history professor in our native Slovakia].

    Especially liked the quote “the Pilgrims went in search of “levels of religious intolerance that were unavailable to them in England” attributed to Garrison Keillor. And as everyone is aware the levels of religious intolerance have continued and grown as each evangelical group attempts to be more intolerant than every other splinter group.

    Christians certainly are unique.


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