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Thanksgiving: The Biography of an American Holiday (Revisiting New England) Paperback – October 30, 2009

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Editorial Reviews

Review

“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

Review

“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)
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Product Details

  • Series: Revisiting New England
  • Paperback: 288 pages
  • Publisher: New Hampshire (October 30, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1584658010
  • ISBN-13: 978-1584658016
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 0.6 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #977,360 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Your typical Thanksgiving book for adults is a cookbook, whether of traditional foods or new twists, like using other ethnic foods for "spice." The book may also have tips on decorating: "tablescaping" and other ideas of how to set a pretty table. Let's say I hate cookbooks, unless they have something historical to offer, like THE LITTLE HOUSE COOKBOOK. Very few adult books ever talk about the holiday itself or its history. Those are mostly reserved for children, and run the gamut from the old "Pilgrims and the Indians" story—even though we have known for years now that most of our stories about "the first Thanksgiving" are myths created after the fact, many people still think that Pilgrims wore black and had hats and boots with buckles, that the feast they celebrated in 1621 was a "Thanksgiving," etc.—to stories about being generous and giving thanks. Baker's BIOGRAPHY is a very readable companion piece to Diana Appelbaum's THANKSGIVING, but is an easier read without being simplistic. It also touches more on things like images, writings, and films about Thanksgiving, changes in menus in the intervening years, and parades and football games. The one thing that this book makes very clear is that the now "iconic" AUTUMN Thanksgiving imagery of Pilgrims and Indians only became emphasized at the very end of the 19th century and during the early decades of the 20th, back when the United States became flooded with non-English speaking immigrants whom the schools wished to impress upon some idea of the country's heritage. Previous to that it was simply a WINTER New England holiday which spread as New England residents moved westward, and involved reunions with family and friends.Read more ›
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Format: Kindle Edition
I haven't yet finished this book, but so far I really like it. The use of primary sources is excellent. The frustrating part is that the endnotes aren't hyperlinked within the Kindle text, and no true index is given to find the endnotes.
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Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Very in-depth, informs you about the origins of our traditional Thanksgiving plus all of the other Thanksgiving during the nascent years of our country.
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Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
I bought the book to give to a friend when I visit her on Thanksgiving; that is her favorite holiday, and I thought that she would like to know more about it. I knew that the book existed, but never got around to buying it until now. I have begun it and plan to finish it before I have to turn it over. So far, it has quite exceeded my expectations and makes me want to learn even more about colonial and 19th-century American history.
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Thanksgiving: The Biography of an American Holiday (Revisiting New England)
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