A glimpse of an American holiday through the ages.

hot topic covers november 2017

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Baker, James W. Thanksgiving: the biography of an American holiday. University of New Hampshire, 2009. 273p ISBN 9781584658016 pbk, $26.95.
Reviewed in CHOICE April 2010

Although the story of Thanksgiving’s shift from a regional to a national holiday is chronicled in essays tucked into such general considerations of holidays as We Are What We Celebrate, edited by Amitai Etzioni and Jared Bloom (CH, Jul’05, 42-6565); All Around the Year, by Jack Santino (1994); and Red, White, and Blue Letter Days, by Matthew Dennis (CH, Mar’03, 40-4192), Baker shows that the subject of Thanksgiving is worthy of book-length treatment. Mining a panoply of documentary evidence from Colonial-era diary accounts and community proclamations to commercial advertisements and film productions, Baker (former director of research at Plimoth Plantation) provides a richly detailed study of the curious rise of Thanksgiving as an American icon. As a historian, Baker is particularly interested in separating the facts of Thanksgiving’s origin from socially constructed fictions. To his credit, rather than dismissing the national mythology of Thanksgiving, he analyzes the implications of the various emergent narratives and debates through time to confront the experience of colonialism, need for national ancestors, and formation of a national celebration of unity in a diverse country. Well written and nicely illustrated, this most extensive treatment of Thanksgiving’s cultural history to date is a significant contribution to American studies. Summing Up: Essential. All levels/libraries. —S. J. Bronner, Pennsylvania State University, Harrisburg Campus

Fieldhouse, Paul. Food, feasts, and faith: an encyclopedia of food culture in world religions. ABC-CLIO, 2017. 2v bibl index ISBN 9781610694117, $189.00; ISBN 9781610694124 ebook, contact publisher for price.
Reviewed in CHOICE November 2017

This two-volume work covers the food preferences, dietary restrictions, and food-sharing, feasting, and fasting practices of the major world religions and religious movements. Access to the contents is provided through an alphabetical list of entries (fish Fridays, pig avoidance, Sikh festival calendar, tea ceremony, water, etc.) and a topical guide repeated in both volumes; readers interested in a particular country or culture are best served by first checking the detailed index. A selection of primary documents and uncommon secondary sources (totaling 27 public-domain items) is presented following the short articles in volume 2. The encyclopedia entries include short reference lists; a longer bibliography of recommended readings appears separately at the end of the set.

Nutritionist Fieldhouse (Univ. of Manitoba), who has worked on food security for the provincial government, is also author of Food and Nutrition: Customs and Culture (CH, Mar’87), among other works exploring the fascinating intersections of food and culture. Readers will find color photographs throughout but may be surprised at the sometimes-truncated, summary treatments of Indigenous peoples of Africa, Asia, Australia, Europe, and the Americas. Several of the author’s write-ups (e.g., the discussion about rice) offer more detail, pulling together numerous facts about the ritual or religious associations with the topic in multiple countries and cultures. The North American (US and Canadian) Thanksgiving observance, now primarily a secular celebration, is included because of the original association with religious practices or customs. Though there is scant mention of Andean or Mayan cultures of the past or present, one finds entries that address Aztec heritage and the historical and modern Day of the Dead in Latin America and elsewhere. Overall, the author’s treatment, varying as it does, suffices to direct beginning students to the sources required for more in-depth understanding of the relationship between cultural expressions of faith and comestibles. Summing Up: Recommended. High school through undergraduate students; general readers. —K. Cleland-Sipfle, Southern Oregon University

Forbes, Bruce David. America’s favorite holidays: candid histories. California, 2015. 222p index afp ISBN 9780520284715, $65.00; ISBN 9780520284722 pbk, $24.95; ISBN 9780520960442 ebook, $24.95.
Reviewed in CHOICE May 2016

A favorite meme circulating on Facebook, usually around early December, comes from historians delighting in “the Puritans’ War on Christmas,” featuring factoids such as the Puritan law fining those who illicitly celebrated the pagan holiday five shillings or that the Pilgrims worked in the fields on Christmas Day. Charles Dickens came up with most of the Christmas lore known today. Like the other histories of holidays (St. Valentine’s Day, Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Easter) that religious studies professor Forbes (Morningside College) explores in his book, Christmas emerges as a “three-layer cake” of ancient, pagan, Christian, and contemporary commercial and popular cultural traditions. Winter solstice celebrations, featuring lights and greenery, served as the base. Christianity then crashed the winter party once its proponents decided that Christmas was the date of Jesus’s birth, a story told in only two of the four Gospels, meaning that Easter historically was the more important Christian holiday. The Victorian-era icing of Santa Claus, family, Christmas cards, and gift giving topped off the holiday. This is a delightful book, full of history presented with a gracious and light touch—in other words, a perfect holiday present. Summing Up: Highly recommended. All public and academic libraries. —P. Harvey, University of Colorado at Colorado Springs

Hodgson, Godfrey. A great & godly adventure: the Pilgrims & the myth of the first Thanksgiving. PublicAffairs, 2006. 212p ISBN 1586483730, $22.00; ISBN 9781586483739, $22.00.
Reviewed in CHOICE September 2007

British journalist Hodgson has written a short, engaging history of the US Thanksgiving holiday, debunking myths and misconceptions while providing historical context and narrative. Beginning with the menu (no turkey), Hodgson challenges some of the religious and political motives usually ascribed to the Pilgrims or the material artifacts of the first settlement (no Plymouth Rock) and the Native Americans (no wampum beads). He explores such ironies as the fact that most days of Thanksgiving for the early Pilgrims were marked by fasting rather than feasting, and that government decrees mandated thanks for military victories over, rather than feasts with, Indians. Hodgson offers readable, valuable reviews of topics such as the theological and political context of the Reformation in Europe and England, navigational technology, pre-Columbian Native Americans, and the political history of the national holiday since the Revolution. His critical yet sympathetic perspective on this “invented tradition” lauds its values of gratitude, humility, and inclusiveness. Endnotes reveal careful reading of the relevant primary sources, though references to secondary sources are skimpy. Too few of the graphic images referred to in the text are included. Summing Up: Recommended. All levels/libraries. —K. Gedge, West Chester University of Pennsylvania

Playfair, Susan. America’s founding fruit: the cranberry in a new environment. University Press of New England, 2014. 243p index afp ISBN 9781611686319, $85.00; ISBN 9781611686326 pbk, $24.95; ISBN 9781611686333 ebook, contact publisher for price.
Reviewed in CHOICE March 2015

Playfair (Vanishing Species, 2003) has written the first nonfiction book to trace the history and health benefits of cranberry cultivation in the US. The author researched primary historical sources, old cookbooks, and scientific and business journals to inform readers about how the cranberry, no longer just served for Thanksgiving, has become a “superfruit” in the fight against cancer. Playfair focuses on the present and future of American cranberry cultivation through interviews with cranberry growers from New England, New Jersey, Wisconsin, and Oregon and plant geneticists to predict whether or not the cranberry will survive in a warming climate. Chapters are sequenced and titled after the steps of cranberry cultivation, and Playfair describes each step and brings the cranberry bog, its relationship with its environment, and the multiple workers and companies who depend on its bounty to life. If readers do not love the cranberry by the end of this book, Playfair provides 21 delicious cranberry recipes as one last effort to change their minds. Valuable for New England collections, large public libraries, culinary collections, and agricultural collections. Summing Up: Highly recommended. All levels/libraries. —R. S. Wexelbaum, Saint Cloud State University

Pleck, Elizabeth H. Celebrating the family: ethnicity, consumer culture, and family rituals. Harvard, 2000. 328p ISBN 067400230X, $55.00; ISBN 0674002792 pbk, $22.95.
Reviewed in CHOICE January 2001

Pleck’s study may be the most sweeping, ambitious, and perhaps critical historical treatment of American holidays to date, revealing the social and cultural life of the American people over the last two centuries. To the intersection of materialism (in the form of American consumer culture) and family/community, Pleck adds complicating issues of ethnicity, class, and gender, focusing her study on the history of Catholics, nonwhites, and non-Christians. Acknowledging the “invented traditions” characteristic of America, she begins with Thanksgiving and adds to the analysis of Christmas by focusing on changing gender perceptions and ethnic responses. However, while portraying national trends she glosses over some regional traditions (particularly the persistence and reinvention of Easter among the Pennsylvania Germans), missing the Jewish response to the inherent antisemitism found in Easter, the growing Sephardic interpretation of Passover, and meanings of the “festival of freedom” for Holocaust observance and civil rights, all of which raise issues of politicization of holidays. Pleck examines the understudied Chinese New Year before moving on to the “family holidays” of birthdays, rites of passage, weddings, and funerals, where some of her most incisive and original points are found. Her engaging, informative, and provocative narrative is strong on weaving the crucial influences of women’s changing roles, ethnic reshaping of the dominant culture, and the pressures of a consumer economy with holiday and ritual observance. Pleck’s breadth of coverage profoundly opens new roads to follow beyond the old intersection of materialism and family/community. Summing Up: Upper-division undergraduates and above. —S. J. Bronner, Pennsylvania State University, Harrisburg

Smith, Andrew F. The turkey: an American story. Illinois, 2006. 224p ISBN 0252031636, $29.95; ISBN 9780252031632, $29.95.
Reviewed in CHOICE March 2007

The Turkey is an interesting, amusing history of a popular food, so popular that Thanksgiving Day (US) is sometimes referred to as “Turkey Day.” Smith gives some background of the native American bird and its domestication, travel to Europe, and return to America as a farm animal. How it became “turkey” is discussed, including various theories that Smith explains as unrealistic. The domestic birds’ history varies from being basically left to run free, like cattle and hogs, to being used to destroy tobacco hornworms and being raised in close confinement. Smith discusses the fate of the wild turkey as well, which has thrived but has not again become so big it could not fly, as was noted by some early European Americans. Of course, he also mentions the social side of “turkey”: the turkey trot, the Broadway turkey, and other uses of the word. Part 2 is a selection of recipes from cookbooks of the 17th to the early 20th century. Written for a popular audience, there are citations to Smith’s sources for those who want to read more. Summing Up: Highly recommended. All levels. —N. Duran, Texas A&M University

Watts, Linda S. Encyclopedia of American folklore. Facts On File, 2007. 468p ISBN 0816056994, $65.00.
Reviewed in CHOICE August 2007

In this compact, single-volume encyclopedia, Watts (Univ. of Washington, Bothell) succeeds in creating a welcoming introductory reference work to the world of American folklore. Culled from a variety of narrative traditions in the US, the topics are as varied as Aaron Copland, hippies, UFOs, and Humpty Dumpty. Regional and ethnic groups are included, as are holidays, famous people, legendary and literary figures, and issues related to folklore research. Each entry includes a list of references and is indexed alphabetically and by category. Watts speaks in plain language and touches on contemporary issues recognizable to the general reader. She astutely observes that the 9/11 tragedy created folklore in its wake; her entry on Thanksgiving does not fail to mention Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and football. Particularly useful is a short section at the end of the book that offers starting points for researchers new to the field. Although this volume is far too general to replace the older, more scholarly American Folklore: An Encyclopedia, ed. by Jan Harold Brunvand (CH, Oct’96, 34-0642), it should be considered a complementary resource to the Encyclopedia of American Folklife, ed. by Simon J. Bronner (CH, Apr’07, 44-4213). Summing Up: Recommended. Lower-level undergraduates and general readers. —E. D. Bochinski, Fairfield University

We are what we celebrate: understanding holidays and rituals, ed. by Amitai Etzioni and Jared Bloom. New York University, 2004. 253p ISBN 0814722261, $60.00; ISBN 081472227X pbk, $19.00.
Reviewed in CHOICE July 2005

This compilation was inspired by a 2003 conference at George Washington University on the celebration of holidays and rituals. Half of the 12 essays have been previously published; all are presented in three sections: family building, community building, and nation building. All of the entries are well written and should intrigue a broad range of students because they run the gamut from the very academic to the more popularly written. Of special interest is “Just for Kids,” which discusses how holidays (the author focuses only on Christmas and Halloween) became child centered. The conclusion is that this occurred because the new focus on children countered traditional class-based exchanges and “provided an alternative to pre-Enlightenment experiences of wonder in the delight of the child.” Also appealing is “Mainstreaming Kwanzaa,” a discussion of Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday, and the history of Thanksgiving. Overall, this is an enjoyable collection that does a great deal to put to rest Emile Durkheim’s “assumption of a close, positive correlation between the occurrence of and participation in holidays and societal integration.” Summing Up: Highly recommended. All levels/libraries. —W. K. McNeil, Ozark Folk Center