Celebrating the American Thanksgiving: An experience-centered approach to meaning formation in a New England family

Hugo Allen Freund, University of Pennsylvania


This dissertation examines how the Mitchell-White family elaborates Thanksgiving and celebrates a network of family ties and friendships. Based on fieldwork and interviews, this dissertation examines the meaning of Thanksgiving for one New England family. Chapter one examines three major historical factors that shaped Thanksgiving: (1) Puritanism, (2) English customs of celebrating the last of the agricultural harvest, and (3) historical events in the American colonies and later in the United States. Frames suggests that there are different subjective perspectives which shape meaning and shape Thanksgiving as a socio-cultural celebration for the Mitchell-White family. Several family members participate in the Pilgrim Progress, a local reenactment that occurs on Thanksgiving. Participating in the Pilgrim Progress bridges the transient present with the distant past. Members of the Mitchell-White clan intentionally pick and choose, as well as refashion and introduce new innovations from the possible range of festive celebrations that constitutes Thanksgiving. Participation couples two key ideas--intentionality and meaning. The active sense of participation is expressed in the doing--in the enactment of meaning, the intentional creation of a sense of meaningfulness. The sense of individual participation and meaning-formation is rooted partially in agricultural, life and family cycles. Although family members do not share uniform beliefs about Thanksgiving, those that attend appear to share a set of operating principles in common. First, the Mitchell-White's Thanksgiving is seen as changeable. Food items and the seating arrangements vary from year to year. Second, each year participants 'vist' with a different set of people. Third, through seating and other strategies such as communal dish washing, the event is carefully structured to encourage the family principle of meaningful interaction throughout the Thanksgiving weekend. Lastly, it is only through these perceived meaningful interactions that the shared principles ultimately operationalize a sense of extended kinship ties.

Subject Area

Folklore|Cultural anthropology|American studies

Recommended Citation

Freund, Hugo Allen, "Celebrating the American Thanksgiving: An experience-centered approach to meaning formation in a New England family" (1991). Dissertations available from ProQuest. AAI9125645.