The Meaning of Thanksgiving, as Told Through Cold War Propaganda

A heartwarming 1950s holiday film about the virtues of capitalism

The Johnsons, a fictional Midwestern family, are in for a letdown one Thanksgiving in the 1950s. Expenses were high the previous month, and while the kids are getting stoked for turkey, it falls to their mom to tell them the truth: There will be no turkey this year. Little Tommy is incredulous: "No turkey for Thanksgiving?" Dick, the oldest, notes that everyone else on the block will have a turkey. "A fat lot we're gonna have to be thankful for," he sulks.

What follows, predictably, is a heartwarming meditation on the true meaning of the holiday. But the film is unusual among feel-good holiday fare in that it falls into the Orwellian-sounding genre of “mental hygiene” movies which, according to The New York Times' Ken Smith, had its roots in World War II-era propaganda films. This movie, A Day of Thanksgiving, was produced by the Lawrence, Kansas-based Centron Corporation, a studio that churned out educational films aimed at molding the character of America’s youth. Other installments, paid for in part by state governments, dealt with such societal ills as bullying, prejudice, and venereal disease.

A Day of Thanksgiving came out in 1951, in the context of the early Cold War, with American troops battling communists in Korea and Senator Joseph McCarthy kicking his investigations of suspected American communists into high gear. As such, the film extolls the virtues of capitalist democracy—even, as in the Johnsons' case, when you can't afford turkey. After all, Thanksgiving, as O. Henry pointed out at the turn of the 20th century, "is the one day of the year that is purely American." And America, per Mr. Johnson, is a set of freedoms and privileges that, by the 1950s, has produced abundance beyond the pilgrims' imaginings. "Do you know," Johnson asks his kids, "that there are some places in the world today where you have to get along without just about everything else" besides life itself?

The kids reflect on this a bit at dinner. Tommy realizes how fortunate he is to have enough to eat, turkey or no. "Like Mom says, I'm hungry all the time anyways, and if I didn't live in a country where there was plenty to go around ..." He trails off before concluding: "Golly." Dick tackles America's educational system, "where school books are studied, instead of burned." Mother (as Johnson refers refers to his wife) is thankful "for all the things our American system makes possible"—including washing machines, hot water, and a car—"things free people working together can produce."

Johnson himself strikes a darker note as the film cuts to a shadowy, fedora-ed figure knocking at his family's door. He knows that in America, such a knock is nothing to fear. It could be a friend or a bill collector, but one thing is for certain: "It's not going to be some political gangster coming to drag one of us off to jail because we believe in freedom." And then, in a passage I found especially heartwarming, he professes gratitude for his newspaper, and editors' freedom to print what they want, as well as his own freedom to disagree with them. I like to think the fictional Bill Johnson would have gotten a kick out of Twitter, and maybe even refereed a few civil debates about the Affordable Care Act.

I can't vouch for the state of my own mental hygiene, but eating enough, getting a good education, and being an editor are all terrific things. You can do those things many places; by the same token, many people can't do those things here. But I did them in America, and I'm grateful.