Mark Twain opines on Thanksgiving

You can pick almost any subject and find Mark Twain’s opinions expressed on it somewhere. Thanksgiving is no exception.

In an address given at the first annual dinner of Philadelphia’s New England Society in 1881, he begins with the words “I rise to protest,” and goes on to question the celebration of the landing of the pilgrims at Plymouth Rock in quite amusing terms, (though not without a good dose of moral indignation at the same time).

Twain by Joseph Keppler appeared on the back cover of PUCK, Dec. 23, 1885. From the Dave Thomson collection.

In Volume 1 of the Autobiography, we are given another view of his thoughts on the holiday, this time through his ironic complaints on a conflict over the scheduling of his 70th birthday party:

This talk about Mr. Whittier’s seventieth birthday reminds me that my own seventieth arrived recently, that is to say, it arrived on the 30th of November, but Colonel Harvey was not able to celebrate it on that date because that date had been preempted by the President to be used as Thanksgiving Day, a function which originated in New England two or three centuries ago when those people recognized that they really had something to be thankful for annually, not oftener if they had succeeded in exterminating their neighbors, the Indians, during the previous twelve months instead of getting exterminated by their neighbors the Indians. Thanksgiving Day became a habit, for the reason that in the course of time, as the years drifted on, it was perceived that the exterminating had ceased to be mutual and was all on the white man’s side, consequently on the Lord’s side, consequently it was proper to thank the Lord for it and extend the usual annual compliments. The original reason for a Thanksgiving Day has long ago ceased to exist the Indians have long ago been comprehensively and satisfactorily exterminated and the account closed with Heaven, with the thanks due. But, from old habit, Thanksgiving Day has remained with us, and every year the President of the United States and the Governors of all the several States and the territories set themselves the task, every November, to advertise for something to be thankful for, and then they put those thanks into a few crisp and reverent phrases, in the form of a Proclamation, and this is read from all the pulpits in the land, the national conscience is wiped clean with one swipe, and sin is resumed at the old stand.

The President and the Governors had to have my birthday the 30th for Thanksgiving Day, and this was a great inconvenience to Colonel Harvey, who had made much preparation for a banquet to be given to me on that day in celebration of the fact that it marked my seventieth escape from the gallows, according to his idea a fact which he regarded with favor and contemplated with pleasure, because he is my publisher and commercially interested. He went to Washington to try to get the President to select another day for the national Thanksgiving, and I furnished him with arguments to use which I thought persuasive and convincing, arguments which ought to persuade him even to put off Thanksgiving Day a whole year on the ground that nothing had happened during the previous twelvemonth except several vicious and inexcusable wars, and King Leopold of Belgium’s usual annual slaughters and robberies in the Congo State, together with the Insurance revelations in New York, which seemed to establish the fact that if there was an honest man left in the United States, there was only one, and we wanted to celebrate his seventieth birthday. But the Colonel came back unsuccessful, and put my birthday celebration off to the 5th of December.

The Clemens family in Hartford, Connecticut, 1884.

Thanksgiving at home, though, was a more familiar affair, with plays performed by his children, and much of the traditional family togetherness we associate with the holiday today.

Note from the Autobiography of Mark Twain, Volume 1: In 1789 George Washington created the first nationally designated Thanksgiving Day, held on 26 November that year. Subsequently, the holiday was appointed by presidential and gubernatorial proclamation, but irregularly and not on a uniform date. In 1863, Abraham Lincoln proclaimed that a national Thanksgiving Day henceforth would be celebrated on the last Thursday in November, which in 1905 was the fifth Thursday, and also Clemens’s birthday. In 1939 Franklin D. Roosevelt changed the date to the third Thursday of November, and in 1941 Congress passed legislation definitively establishing Thanksgiving as the fourth Thursday in November.

See another post on the history of Thanksgiving as a national holiday, as well as one on Mark Twain’s birthday, which includes a giveaway of the complete set of the Autobiography!