Thanksgiving is my favorite annual celebration. I love preparing the traditional meal, filling the house with guests, saying grace and sharing reflections of gratitude.
However, writing about humorous Thanksgiving poetry presents a conundrum. In a world where an estimated 925 Million people are starving, doggerel about the gluttony surrounding the day strike me as shameful and haughty. While I enjoy cooking and eating the turkey, poems poking fun at the bird’s terror of its own impending slaughter strike mas as callous and arrogant. Stories of the Pilgrims’ first feast at Plymouth offer some poetic potential, but that slice of history has been distorted and sanitized to a degree that gives me pause. Let’s not even go there . . . . on second thought, let’s do because it relates to the bigger picture of American poetry and humor.
The “Plymouth Rock” Pilgrims we commemorate on Thanksgiving were seeking to reform their church. The Massachusetts Bay settlers were Pilgrims who’d crossed the Atlantic in search of religious freedom. There were differences between these groups, but both were Puritans and their lasting impact on American culture was profound.
French political writer Alexis de Tocqueville visited the U.S. in the 1830’s and wrote: “I THINK I can see the whole destiny of America contained in the first Puritan who landed on those shores.” This bears out, even today, as residual influences still resonate in our everyday lives.
The Puritans were idealists who dreamed of living under a perfect order. Though we’ve characterized them as stoics, their outlook was positive and full of hope. Progress and optimism have always been core American values, profoundly affecting our sensibilities.
The Puritans sought divine messages in everyday life. Their world was one in which ordinary things held multiple meanings. This metaphorical thinking distinguishes some of our greatest fiction, poetry and humor. Stephen Colbert’s top ten metaphors are legendary and Billy Collins‘ poem Litany has great fun with this literary device as well.
Puritans valued simplicity and straightforwardness in language, just as most Americans do today.
And then, of course are the residual influences of puritanical morality. In 2011, the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology published the results of a series of experiments conducted by researchers led by Yale psychologist Eric Luis Uhlmann. His findings? The attitudes of American college students are more puritanical than those of their Canadian, British and Asian counterparts. This longstanding cultural outlook helped shape the development of classic American “wholesome” humor while at the same time ushering in another brand that poked fun at priggishness. (Think Mae West.)
By the 1730’s, the First Great Awakening and its Revival culture began to spread, unifying the thirteen and once-very-separate colonies while encouraging individuals to challenge established authority and dogma.
Philosophical theologist Jonathan Edwards was instrumental to this movement. Just when you think you’ve heard everything, here are thoughts and words, along with those of conservative Puritan minister Edward Taylor, set to rap:
While we’re on the subject of Puritans and rap, Christian Rapper, Propaganda recently released this musical/poetic protest to mainstream textbook American history.
On that note, and without the slightest trace of irony, Happy Thanksgiving! Make yours a day for sharing, reflection and gratitude. If you are on the internet reading this post, odds are you live in a country where you can believe, speak, write and live as you wish. By that alone, we are abundantly blessed!