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Thanksgiving and Unity

Since this blog is published on Monday (for the moment), Thanksgiving isn’t a holiday it talks a great deal about.  But this year, it happens that discussions of Thanksgiving Day (American, not Canadian, nor Australian, nor Liberian, nor Dutch) has links to 3 October, and to a most miraculous Thanksgiving event in Germany.

Proclamations of “thanksgiving” were common in Britain for survival from floods, wars, famines, larger fires, plagues or invasions. In the American colonies, there are well-known stories of a “first Thanksgiving” being celebrated by the Pilgrim Fathers and their Native American neighbors (surely at least some of my readers were turkeys or lobsters or something in at least one school pageant).  Records are scarce, but most historians agree that as early as 1621 there was a feast in October or November where much food was consumed in company with some of the locals.  No record, however, of football being played, or of Uncle Absalom imbibing in too much porter and trying to dunk Aunt Prudence in the river. As early as 1631 some fall day was declared a holiday somewhere in America, mostly in New England.  On 3 October 1789, George Washington (who had become president just that February) proclaimed that Thursday, 26 November should be “a day of public thanksgiving.”  There is some speculation about why a Thursday was chosen (to be exclusively a day of thanks separate from a day of worship) and why November (harvest in some parts of the new republic could last, in good years, at late as mid-November), but no one thought too much of it at the time.

No record, however, of football being played, or of Uncle Absalom imbibing in too much porter and trying to dunk Aunt Prudence in the river. 

By the American Civil War generations later, the Thanksgiving tradition had died out in parts of the country, or had been moved from November to as early as October (following several of the Canadian provinces, which had different dates). On 3 October 1863, Abraham Lincoln issued a proclamation that fixed Thanksgiving as the last Thursday in November.  This was an attempt to unify the states in at least something, but the Confederates weren’t interested.  Most southern states paid no attention until after Reconstruction in the 1870s, but as early as the 1880s Thanksgiving had become the beginning of the Christmas shopping season (yes, Virginia, that insanity really did start that early in history).  The holiday remained there until 1941, when Franklin Roosevelt, after much lobbying by the larger commercial outlets and the labor unions, fixed the day as the fourth Thursday as a goad to the economy, and as a tool to manage factory scheduling,.  Factory tooling improvements are traditionally performed during a “holiday shutdown” between Christmas and New Year’s.  Moving the Thanksgiving holiday earlier for most years allows for vacations before the shutdown for maintenance crews, adds as much as another week of “shopping days” till Christmas, and even more time for the mass media to saturate their audiences with ads for the same thing.

… as early as the 1880s Thanksgiving had become the beginning of the Christmas shopping season (yes, Virginia, that insanity really did start that early in history)

In 1989, mass migrations across the Hungarian frontier into Austria were not opposed. When this part of the Iron Curtain was drawn back, East Germans trickled through Czechoslovakia and into Austria and on to West Germany. Germans, like Israelis, have the “right of return” from anywhere.  Soon, as the news spread, the trickle became a flood, and in October 1989 the Berlin Wall was torn open by mobs of civilians and border guards.  This triggered the collapse of communist regimes in Eastern Europe by the end of the year, the eventual breaking of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and the end of that entity in 1991, and the traditional end of the Cold War. On 3 October 1990, one of the largest symbols of the Cold War was eliminated when East and West Germany were officially rejoined after more than half a century of separation.  The date is celebrated as Day of German Unity (Tag der Deutschen Einheit) in Germany, a national holiday.  Though “Germany” has existed as a vague geographic idea, customs union, kingdom and empire off and on since anyone can remember, this was the first time it could have been called a “modern” state since 1945.

…as the news spread, the trickle became a flood, and in October 1989 the Berlin Wall was torn down.

Though Thanksgiving is a time for feasting and ODing on TV, for this family German Unity Day a month and a half earlier has a different meaning.  The wife was one of the Germans that the Americans and Soviets was willing to fight over, and many family members were still in Berlin when the Wall came down. The above image of the Brandenburg Gate is much different from this writer’s memory of Berlin when he was last there in 1976.  Besides, Uncle Absalom always made such a fool of himself on Thanksgiving it’s become a family embarrassment.  But that’s what family is for.

 

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