Why Are There No Thanksgiving Songs?


When I was a kid in Chicago, Thanksgiving was the same every year: wake up around six, turn on the parade, glue myself to the oversize armchair, be annoyed for the twenty minutes my parents made me mute the television at eleven, realize that my parents had been in the kitchen behind me for hours preparing dinner, resume ogling the giant balloons and forget about Mom and Dad again, take too long to clean my bathroom, get the door at three for Uncle Don, wait an hour for everyone else to show up, eat lots of food, eat twice as much pie, and sleep happy. It was the perfect holiday.

Now that I’m an adult in Los Angeles, Thanksgiving is much less perfect and miserably inconsistent. I’ve eaten Hot Pockets in lieu of corn casserole, played board games with a friend’s now-estranged father, crashed another friend’s now-ex-girlfriend’s family’s party, sold iPads. Oddly, the only remnant of my early Turkey Days that survives is that twenty minutes at eleven o’clock when I was forced to stop listening to yet another lip-synced pop star and instead tune my ears to Arlo Guthrie’s “Alice’s Restaurant” on WXRT, which I came to love far more than the Macy’s march.

Yesterday was no exception. I found the radio station’s live stream, albeit at nine instead of eleven, because time zones. I listened and laughed and layered my voice with Arlo’s on my favorite lyrics (“quotated,” “that was horrible”). I left my apartment thoroughly in the Thanksgiving spirit.

But when I arrived at work, I was accosted by a forty-foot fir, its verdancy suffocated by a faux snow coating that winked apologetically in the eighty-five-degree sun. Poinsettias dotted the walkways, ornamented garlands draped the halls, and some nameless teen idol sang a hopelessly un-jazzy “Santa Baby” through the sound system. My Thanksgiving mood melted away as quickly as the white on the tree should have.

Early-onset gingerbread houses and nativity scenes have always irked me, as has Santa’s faithful appearance at the end of the Macy’s parade hours before anyone’s bird emerges from the oven, as if Thanksgiving were but a starter pistol for Christmas instead of a holiday all its own. But it was the music, that pitiful bastardization of Eartha Kitt, that set me off most. “Santa Baby” is a Christmas song, and it was Thanksgiving Day; why weren’t they playing a Thanksgiving song?

I searched the Internet and quickly found my answer: They weren’t playing a Thanksgiving song because there are no Thanksgiving songs.

It’s not that there haven’t been attempts—there just haven’t been many good ones. Adam Sandler’s “The Thanksgiving Song,” whose title is promising, is little more than a collage of puerile poultry couplets: “Turkey for me, turkey for you / Let’s eat turkey in a big brown shoe / Love to eat the turkey at the table / I once saw a movie with Betty Grable.” It hardly evokes any holiday sentiment.

YouTube star Jack Douglass has his own “The Thanksgiving Song,” which has potential for a whopping four seconds until the music video reveals its subtitle, “or Why Thanksgiving Sucks.”

Even my beloved “Alice’s Restaurant” has nothing to do with Thanksgiving, per se. The story Guthrie tells took place in part on the holiday, but that’s purely coincidental and frankly unimportant.

I was floored. Music had played such a memorable role in all my Thanksgivings—was that true for no one else?

Certain I was missing some hidden trove of harvest feast repertoire, I dug deeper on Google and found it: an Esquire article headlined “24 Best Thanksgiving Songs.” Encouraged, I opened the link, only to find the list included such holiday standards as Ray Charles’ “Sweet Potato Pie,” James Brown’s “(Do The) Mashed Potatoes,” and, incredibly, Ghostface Killah’s “Food.” 

Is the dearth of Thanksgiving music so severe as to merit the inclusion of songs solely because their titles are homonyms of holiday dishes? Apparently, yes.

But why? Some estimates put the total number of unique yuletide carols near two hundred thousand, and Thanksgiving has existed for roughly one-fifth the time that Christmas has. Where, then, are the forty thousand Thanksgiving tunes? Why are we stuck with a list of twenty-four that bafflingly includes Mary J. Blige’s “Kitchen”?

There are, of course, many potential explanations. But the reasoning I find most compelling is an economic one.

Long history short: In the United States, Thanksgiving was traditionally celebrated on the last Thursday of November. But in 1939, that date was to be November 30, which, being so late in the month, made retailers worry their Christmas sales would be low. Thus, to make certain that wouldn’t happen again, Franklin Delano Roosevelt changed Thanksgiving to the fourth (instead of final) Thursday of November, which is still the practice today. Now, Thanksgiving can fall no later than November 28.

Let me put that a different way: To ensure Americans bought all the Christmas gifts they could possibly stuff under their trees, the President of the United States signed a law to shift the range of potential Thanksgiving dates back by two days. Two days. FDR disrupted a convention dating back over seven decades and sparked a national debate that lasted seventeen years to give retailers forty-eight more hours of Christmas revenue.

Why are there no Thanksgiving songs? Because there’s no money in Thanksgiving.

Thanksgiving is a boring holiday for a capitalist. Sure, it’s a celebration of family and gratefulness and warmth, but those are mushy feelings that don’t help the bottom line; no one wakes up Thanksgiving morning to find a big-screen TV waiting for them under the Sterno. Unless you own the Butterball company, the only way you’’ll see green on Thanksgiving is if you forget to refrigerate your pumpkin pie.

The holiday is such a drag that, in recent years, corporations who don’t sell turkeys have opened their doors on Thanksgiving night so their customers can get a head start on their Christmas shopping—and they actually come. That’s why Christmas is a capitalist’s dream. Despite its religious roots, the contemporary ethos of Christmas is entirely bankable: buying gifts, watching movies, seeing Santa at the mall, going ice skating, drinking hot cocoa with Bailey’s, and—you guessed it—listening to Christmas songs. 

Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas” has sold more than 50 million copies worldwide; it is the best-selling single of all time, holiday-themed or not. And yet, it was written by Irving Berlin, a secular Jew. 

Why did Irving Berlin, who not only didn’t believe in Jesus Christ but didn’t believe in religion at all, write the most famous Christmas song ever recorded? For the same reason songwriters penned two hundred thousand Christmas songs and no Thanksgiving songs, the same reason big-box stores offered their best deals before Black Friday, the same reason Franklin Roosevelt gave those very retailers two more days between Thanksgiving and Christmas: there was money in it.

In all transparency, I don't know what a Thanksgiving song would sound like. Would carolers knock on your door and sing "What Meat Is This?" Would Harry Connick Jr. tickle you with "Really, Gramps? Another Slice of Corn Bread?" Would your daughter's third-grade class move you to tears with "Where's Pocahontas?"

I can't say. But I know we have to do better than celebrating Thanksgiving to the tune of “Ode to my Family” by The Cranberries, which assuredly made Esquire’s list less for its lyrical content and more for the name of its band.

As it is, I’m thankful for my “Alice’s Restaurant” tradition. It’s the only Thanksgiving song I have, even though it’s not really a Thanksgiving song at all. But I’ve made it my Thanksgiving song; maybe that’s all that matters.

Now if you’ll excuse me, it’s the holiday season and this secular Jew needs to go sing some Christmas carols because—well, you know.

essaysJake Novak1 Comment