Thanksgiving Is Complicated

By | November 16, 2020

Today, Thanksgiving is largely observed as a secular holiday. The text of Lincoln’s original proclamation was, however, explicit in declaring it “a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens.” We are by now familiar with how holidays grounded in a particular faith can be divisive. (And by the way, that ubiquitous Thanksgiving cornucopia? Probably hales from Greek or Roman folklore. #pagan) But maybe we’ve already found a way to subvert religion, by swapping out one God for a uniquely American kind of other. After all, it was only a handful of years after Lincoln’s proclamation that the first Thanksgiving football games were played at the high school and college level; Thanksgiving NFL mainstay, the Detroit Lions, played their first holiday game in 1934. 

Modern Thanksgiving at its best is a time to gather with family and give thanks for whatever good has happened in the preceding year. Often, it’s an excuse to overindulge at the table, lie around all day watching TV and hit the shops for midnight madness sales. At its worst, though, Thanksgiving is a glorification of centuries of brutal European colonization and that needs to stop.

To be fair, there actually is an historical basis for the idea of settlers and Native Americans coming together for a feast of thanksgiving. English settlers and Wampanoag Indians came together in Plymouth, MA, in 1621 (which has become the dominant narrative of the first Thanksgiving), but there is also evidence that Spaniards shared a communal meal and mass with the indigenous population of Florida as early as 1565. However, neither of those gatherings evokes the actual history of European colonization. Only five years after the Plymouth festivities, Massachusetts governor John Winthrop called for a day of thanks in praise of soldiers who’d slaughtered hundreds of Pequot men, women and children. And by 1675 the English and Wampanoag were engaged in “King Philip’s War,” ultimately resulting in thousands of deaths…hardly the kind of history taught to children when they make their Pilgrim hats and feathered headbands.

How should we talk to students about Thanksgiving? The New York Times noted that many of the resources available to teachers abridge and simplify details so much “that they are ultimately made false.” But there’s plenty of content out there to facilitate discussions about settler/indigenous relations, and to explore Native American history and culture, while also recognizing the importance of the American Thanksgiving tradition. You can look at recipes that swap out turkey and pumpkin pie for indigenous ingredients, or learn the Wampanoag names of animals. This online library is a fantastic resource for books about Indigenous Peoples’ Day, and this one is wonderful for Thanksgiving. Even a simple quiz can serve as a springboard into conversations about misconceptions a student might have.

Our work isn’t done just because we recognize the problem. We need to work on rewriting the narrative from many perspectives, and making sure that the many all have a place in the whole. 

And remember, when you’re sitting around the table trying to ignore that one uncle telling off-color jokes, tolerating racism is racism.