Seasons of Steyn
Happy Thanksgiving to all our American readers. Here are a few Thanksgiving thoughts from me over the years. First, from on the radio with Hugh Hewitt seven years ago:
HUGH HEWITT: "Thanksgiving," you write, "excepting the premature and somewhat undernourished Canadian version, is unique to America." You write that Europeans really just don't get this.
MARK STEYN: No, it's very strange that Europeans don't quite understand what the Thanksgiving holiday is all about. You know, holidays in countries tend to be ancient religious holidays, obviously Christmas and Easter, or ones named for battles, or dead kings or queens, or whatever. And what I like about Thanksgiving is it's very small scale, very modest, very intimate, very American, and absolutely gets to the key of things, which is thanking God for the blessings of this great land. And it's my favorite holiday, and I love it more each year I'm here.
HH: Listen to this.[MUSIC]
HH: Now Mark Steyn, why did you include this in your column today?
MS: (laughing) Well, Oklahoma is celebrating its centennial of statehood. And whatever one feels about which is the best state, I'm happy to say that I think they have the best state song, because that is just a great rouser. I wrote about Oklahoma! a while back, and I don't agree with Garrison Keillor about very much these days, but I saw him on stage years ago, and he said how much he loved this song - not the first part of it about the hawk making lazy circles in the sky, but when you get to the "we know we belong to the land, and the land we belong to is grand", he said that's a real pick-you-up ...makes you want to sing it, belt it out in the shower in the morning. And I think there's a lot of truth in it, too. I think there's an implicit connection between the people who came here and the land, and the great republic that they have built on this land. It's a unique experiment in human history, and it's worked for two and a quarter centuries.
Thirteen years ago, the first Thanksgiving after 9/11 also marked the fall of the Taliban. This is from my anthology The Face Of The Tiger:
We can be thankful that this month, for the first time, the UN has met its target for getting sufficient supplies into Afghanistan to feed its starving people. It turns out the quickest way to end the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan is to remove its idiot government. Conversely, the best way to keep people starving is to cook up new wheezes to maintain the thugs in power, as Christian Aid tried to do when it demanded a humanitarian "bombing pause" for Ramadan.
Among the food supplies to get through was a fresh supply of egg on the face of Noam Chomsky, the beloved comic doom-monger, who told an audience in New Delhi the other week that the American attacks were a "silent genocide" that would lead to the deaths of some seven million Afghans. I personally am thankful that, by the time my children are of college age, Prof Chomsky will have retired, perhaps to that collective farm in North Korea he dreams fondly of.
I am thankful that Mohamed Atef, a key al-Qa'eda lieutenant blown up in a devastating US raid, has gone off to Paradise to claim his 72 virgins. Paradise must be running quite low on virgins these days. I hope Mr Atef pulled rank on all the other martyrs... I am also thankful I don't live in a cave. That the son of a successful Saudi building contractor, made spectacularly rich by western investment, should have wound up digging himself his own personal hole is in its way a poignant emblem of the Middle East's perverse misunderstanding of modernity.
Thanksgiving is an American holiday, but over the years I've suggested the foreign chappies ought to raise a cheer or three, too. This is from 2007:
On this Thanksgiving the rest of the world ought to give thanks to American national sovereignty, too. When something terrible and destructive happens â a tsunami hits Indonesia, an earthquake devastates Pakistan â the US can project itself anywhere on the planet within hours and start saving lives, setting up hospitals and restoring the water supply. Aside from Britain and France, the Europeans cannot project power in any meaningful way anywhere... If America were to follow the Europeans and maintain only a shriveled attenuated residual military capacity, the world would very quickly be nastier and bloodier, and far more unstable. It's not just Americans and Iraqis and Afghans who owe a debt of thanks to the US soldier but all the Europeans grown plump and prosperous in a globalized economy guaranteed by the most benign hegemon in history.
On the radio Hugh Hewitt asked me about that:
HH: I was struck, has any other empire ever done so much for, with so little expectation in return?
MS: No, and that's because America isn't an empire. And one can have arguments about that. And some of us draw the conclusion from the last six years - Max Boot, and to a certain extent, Don Rumsfeld, and fellows like Niall Ferguson - that America, in a sense, needs to develop more of the conventional attributes of empire. But Americans don't have an imperialist bone in their body. And they just give to the world. They give to the world. Who is it, when the tsunami strikes, who is it who comes in and restores the water supply? It's an American task force. The U.N. will accept your checks. People in Ireland, people in Norway, wrote plenty of checks when the tsunami struck. But the people who get there on the ground and save lives, and provide shelter, and restore the water supply, are the Americans and a few other countries. It's a very select group... You know, when you drive around seeing those cars saying "it'll be a great day when the school district has all the money it needs, and the Pentagon has to start to hold bake sales", well, if the Pentagon has to hold bake sales, all those people are going to die when the tsunami strikes, when the earthquake strikes Pakistan. It's that infrastructure that enables America to help the world.
Hugh Hewitt was kind enough to send me a cajun turducken one Thanksgiving. Enjoyed it immensely. If you and yours prefer something a little more traditional, this is from my 2003 profile of the turkey for The Sunday Telegraph:
The turkey came from Mexico, but was generally assumed to be a "bird of India" (in French, dinde) everywhere except Britain, where it was named after Turkey because it was similar to a pre-existing bird introduced from Turkey but actually from Guinea, and subsequently re-named the guinea fowl, which was thought to be less confusing than re-naming the new turkey the mexico, though in America there is a sub-species of turkey called the mexicana.
We still have wild turkey over here, in every state except Alaska. Every morning, round about six, a great long line of them waddle out from behind my daughter's playhouse across the lawn and into the woods. The wild gobbler has a lighter build, with a longer neck and a smaller head, and his flesh tastes a lot juicier, which is one reason why the turkey recipe in my local Baptist church's brand new fundraising cookbook begins: "First purchase hunting licence."
Whatever his Mexicali-Turkic-Indian-Guinean appellation, in the Appalachians the turkey was considered such a robust exponent of the American temperament that Benjamin Franklin wanted to make him the young Republic's national emblem. "For my own part I wish the Bald Eagle had not been chosen the Representative of our Country. He is a Bird of bad moral Character," wrote Franklin in 1784. "Besides he is a rank Coward: the little King Bird not bigger than a Sparrow attacks him boldly and drives him out of the District. He is therefore by no means a proper Emblem for the brave and honest Cincinnati of America who have driven all the King birds from our Country."
By contrast, the turkey is "a Bird of Courage, and would not hesitate to attack a Grenadier of the British Guards who should presume to invade his Farm Yard with a Red Coat on".
So, if the turkey is a Mexican, the President didn't really need to issue his ceremonial pardon this week. He could just have added him to the five million other Mexicans he pardoned in his executive order last week. Now we've got the turkey, how about some musical accompaniment? This is from my book A Song For The Season:
Just in time for Thanksgiving, here comes, er, "Jingle Bells" - which was written not for the Yuletide season but, allegedly, for Thanksgiving. In Boston, in the fall of 1857, the city's leading music publisher, Oliver Ditson, introduced the world to a new song called "The One-Horse Open Sleigh"...
J Pierpont Morgan, archetypal American plutocrat, was the nephew of the J Pierpont who wrote "Jingle Bells". The Pierponts are an old family who can trace their roots back to 8th century France and Charlemagne. They came over to England with William the Conqueror in 1066, and by the 18th century were established in the American colonies. One Pierpont helped found Yale, another helped found the Unitarian Church. But James Lord Pierpont, born in Boston in 1822, was a different kind of Pierpont. At the age of ten he was sent to school in New Hampshire, from where he wrote his mom a letter about a sleigh ride through the northern snows, the first recorded glimmer of his brightest idea...
Where was "Jingle Bells" written? Medford, Mass, claims it as its own and has a ton of anecdotage to go with the song: One day, James Pierpont went to the Seccomb boardinghouse, whose landlady, Mrs Otis Waterman, kindly allowed him to play the neighborhood's only piano, which belonged to one of her tenants, a local music teacher called William Webber. James sat down and, after some fiddling with the tune here and there, plunked out:
Whereupon Mrs Waterman pronounced it "a very merry jingle". At which point Pierpont got the idea to add words, and turn his jingle into a song about the jingly bells on the "cutters" - the one-horse open sleighs - that the local lads liked to race along Salem Street from Medford Square to Malden Square a century and a half ago. Hence:
The Seccomb boardinghouse subsequently became the Simpson Tavern, outside of which for many years was an official plaque marking it as the birthplace of "Jingle Bells". Alas, one winter some fellow came dashing through the snow on a one-blade open plow, and the plow blade damaged the plaque and it had to be removed. Still, plaque or not, Medford claims the song as its own.
Miss Jessica Martin and I subsequently took our own ride on that one-horse open sleigh.
And finally, to return to that song Hugh Hewitt mentioned above:
Last week, the state of Oklahoma celebrated its centennial, accompanied by rousing performances of Rodgers and Hammerstein's eponymous anthem:
Which isn't a bad theme song for the first Thanksgiving, either. Three hundred and fourteen years ago, the pilgrims thanked God because there was a place for them in this land, and it was indeed grand. The land is grander today, and that too is remarkable: France has lurched from Second Empires to Fifth Republics struggling to devise a lasting constitutional settlement for the same smallish chunk of real estate, but the principles that united a baker's dozen of East Coast colonies were resilient enough to expand across a continent and halfway around the globe to Hawaii. Americans should, as always, be thankful this Thanksgiving, but they should also understand just how rare in human history their blessings are.
from Seasons of Steyn, November 27, 2014
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