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Why the Bewitched 1967 Thanksgiving episode is still relevant in 2019

Contributed by
Nov 20, 2019

Thanksgiving episodes of television sitcoms are as traditional to this holiday as pumpkin pie, cranberry sauce, and the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. Nothing ever goes smoothly: The turkey is either under- or overcooked, squabbles threaten the peace, and general havoc ensues. But by the end of the episode, thanks have been given, lessons are imparted, and normal service is typically resumed. However, most of those dinners don't spiral into time travel and colonial-era persecution.

In the 1967 Thanksgiving episode of Bewitched, a quiet family dinner for three devolves into a trip back to 1620 Plymouth. Seventeenth-century America didn't exactly have the best track record when it came to witches (or persecution in general), so this particular holiday is laced with danger. What follows is the usual Stephens family shenanigans, but with a deeper meaning that still applies more than 50 years later.

Credit: ABC

It wouldn't be the holidays without family drama, and Aunt Clara's (Marion Lorne) surprise visit (caused by sleep talking) is at the heart of this mishap. The ability to do spells while slumbering is a concern, but this is nothing in comparison to what Aunt Clara accidentally has in store for the Stephenses. Reminiscing about the first Thanksgiving she attended — which also happened to be the first Thanksgiving — Clara is wistful for the past. Nostalgia is just as potent as any spell, and the combination of the two leads to Clara accidentally whisking them all back in time. Darrin (Dick York) was already annoyed that their quiet Thanksgiving had been interrupted by a relative; however, this turn of events puts him in full panic mode.

Samantha (Elizabeth Montgomery) is excited to experience the origins of this American tradition, telling her worried husband that witch hysteria wasn't a problem until later this century. Despite the gender disparity of the Pilgrim period, the husband/wife dynamic between this pair is exactly the same in the past as it is in their present. She can use her magic here, but only the person who did the original spell can zap them back. Aunt Clara cannot recall the exact incantation, so they have to make do with their new surroundings until she does.

Credit: ABC

In an attempt to assimilate, Samantha switches their '60s attire for Puritanical costumes so they enjoy this inaugural Thanksgiving. Unfortunately, Darrin's 20th-century dialect and inability to let the overt sexism of the period slide is only going to get him into trouble — even if we can appreciate his disdain for men who believe women are inferior. As we know by now, it isn't Samantha who will get this family into trouble, but Darrin. A conversation about burning witches sends him into a full tailspin, which is how he ends up making things infinitely worse.

Striking a match to light a fire is seemingly innocuous, but it is how Darrin ends up accused of witchcraft — the first self-igniting match wasn't invented until 1805. Phineas (Jacques Aubuchon) was already suspicious of his "strangeness of speech," but this so-called magic trick seals Darrin's fate. On Bewitched, witchcraft tends to play a role in causing havoc, but on this occasion it is nothing more than a modern invention and colloquialisms that put him in persecution peril — OK, so a spell did land them in 1620 in the first place.

Credit: ABC 

Whether he pleads innocent or admits he is a witch, Darrin will be burned either way — those aren't great odds. At his trial, he continues to dig a hole, as there is no way for Phineas to reignite the match to prove it wasn't the work of the occult. Despite the contempt for "women folk," Samantha is allowed to mount a defense for her husband, giving an impassioned speech focusing on how the "New World" should use this opportunity to embrace tolerance, acceptance, and diversity, no matter how different someone looks or sounds. People should not be accused of witchcraft as a result of mannerisms, dialect, and appearance that doesn't conform. As the music swells, Samantha explains that with this mindset "no one is safe from the charge of witchery."

A speech like this on prime-time TV might sound a little on the nose, but this message is just as important in 1967 as it is in 2019. It applies as much to the social issues of the 1960s (including the Civil Rights Movement) as it does to the current political climate. Of course, the term "witch hunt" has lost some of its meaning as a result of its misuse by some on Twitter, but the rest of Samantha's speech applies. It is also worth noting that while all of this is going on, their toddler Tabitha (Erin Murphy) happily plays with the other Pilgrim kids. Unlike adults, young children DGAF about dialect differences.

Credit: ABC

Witch trials were, of course, very real but have since become an allegorical shorthand for persecution. Arthur Miller wrote The Crucible in 1953 as a reaction to McCarthyism and those who had been blacklisted from working in Hollywood after appearing before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). A ruined career was the punishment for potentially being or even sympathizing with Communists. An accusation or a refusal to name others was all it took to be tarnished. You don't have to look too deep to see why Miller drew a line between these events and the witch trials of 1692. This episode of Bewitched uses the witch trial setup to discuss broader elements of acceptance and prejudice, but there is an even deeper meaning behind those words.

"Samantha's Thanksgiving to Remember" was written by a married couple with personal experience of the HUAC investigation. After getting blacklisted in 1951, Helen and Alfred Lewis Levitt's careers stalled. He went from being a promising movie screenwriter to not working for around five years. In order to get back in the writing game, they were relegated to television, writing under the pseudonyms Helen and Tom August — which is how their names appear in the Bewitched credits. This personal experience no doubt informs both the trial element of this episode and Samantha's impassioned speech.

Credit: ABC

The social and political issues of 1967 are obviously different from when the Levitts were blacklisted, but the fractures were just as pronounced. They couldn't rewrite the persecution of their past and still couldn't use their real names, but they could address the fraught landscape of mid-'60s America in a speech advocating acceptance to a large audience.

We don't get to see what happens in the courtroom after Samantha's speech, because Aunt Clara remembers the incantation and zaps them back to the present day — although it is likely that this flash of smoke and vanishing act by the defendants only solidified the Pilgrims' belief in witchcraft, overshadowing the content of her message. Nevertheless, the audience watching at home will hopefully pay more attention to the reminders issued by Elizabeth Montgomery. It will take much more than a wiggle of her nose to fix the world, but Samantha's words are a good place to start.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author's, and do not necessarily reflect those of SYFY WIRE, SYFY, or NBCUniversal.

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