According to the US Code (Title 5, Section 6103) the fourth Thursday in November is to be celebrated as a national holiday, otherwise known as “Thanksgiving Day.” The exact origin of this tradition is a matter of some debate, though we know that it was President Abraham Lincoln who first gave it official recognition in 1863. The exact date of the celebration has moved around a bit, until it was fixed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1941.
Like its date, the meaning of Thanksgiving has also underwent some changes. At a time when the majority of American population was directly involved with farming, Thanksgiving meant a community-wide celebration of the fall harvest. In the technicalized industrial society of today, the holiday’s agrarian roots are difficult to keep in view. With the rise of industrialization, people are much less attached to ancestral lands and communities are much less stable due to increased mobility; as a result, the harvest festival of a bygone era is now experienced in the travails of long-distance travel, traffic jams on highways, long lines at the airports, and awkward reunions among estranged relatives. Despite the troubles, however, it is impossible to argue against the idea of taking time off from work in order to enjoy the company of friends and family, while also being extra grateful for our many undeserved blessings.
According to the elementary school legend, the site of the “original” Thanksgiving was Plymouth Plantation in Massachusetts and the year was 1621. The Wampanoag Native Americans helped the recently arrived European settlers (the “pilgrims”), who had suffered several deaths during the previous winter, to cultivate the land and catch the fish, thereby saving them from starvation and death. The bountiful harvest was jointly celebrated by the two Peoples in a three-day feast.
The historical credentials of this story are strong, but its archetypal status as a defining moment for inter-cultural cooperation is rather flimsy. No direct link exists between the contemporary holiday of Thanksgiving and the joint European-Indigenous feast of 1621. On the other hand, there is evidence that points to the contrary. Later in the same century, at least one group of European settlers thought that a day should be reserved for thanking the Heavenly Father for, among other things, their victories against the natives. On June 20, 1676, the governing council of Charlestown, MA, discussed the best way to express their gratitude for God who had allowed their community to become securely established. The council decided to make June 29 as the day of thanksgiving, making the following proclamation:
The Holy God having by a long and Continual Series of his Afflictive dispensations in and by the present Warr with the Heathen Natives of this land . . . reserving many of our Towns from Desolation Threatened, and attempted by the Enemy, and giving us especially of late with many of our Confederates many signal Advantages against them, without such Disadvantage to ourselves as formerly we have been sensible of, if it be the Lord’s mercy that we are not consumed, It certainly bespeaks our positive Thankfulness, when our Enemies are in any measure disappointed or destroyed . . . .
Today, the United States is thriving as an amazingly diverse, multi-cultural, and multi-ethnic society. Alongside those of European descent, there are substantial minorities of people from virtually every corner of the world. For all practical purposes, “Thanksgiving” today is an American holiday that is widely celebrated by a large number of people, regardless of their race, ethnicity, and culture of origin. Even new immigrants feel quite happy to be part of this long-standing American tradition. Indeed, who could be so silly as to reject such good things as family, friends, feasting, fowl, and festivities?
And yet, as Americans celebrate another “Thanksgiving Day,” it is clear who won’t be invited to the dinner table, both literally and metaphorically.
The endless repetition of the Plymouth narrative tends to obscure a few pieces of relevant information. For instance, European contact with Native Americans did not begin in 1620, it began in 1492. Before Massachusetts there was Hispaniola, and before Mayflower there was Santa Maria. The heart-warming story of a joint feast enjoyed together by natives and settlers may be true, but it is overshadowed by the harsh and brutal truth of what had preceded and followed their “happy meal.” The first inhabitants of this land have suffered five hundred years of violence and dispossession at the hands of European settlers; ever since Columbus, their condition has been marked by massacres, enslavements, Old World diseases, and the organized thefts of gold, silver, and sacred lands at an unprecedented scale. Their cultures, languages, and religions have all but disappeared, and their population figure has dwindled to a tiny fraction of what it was on the fateful eve of Columbus’ arrival.
This can hardly be a matter of celebration or gratitude; if anything, this is an occasion for mourning and lamentation, apology and repentance, public confession and reconciliation.
The Plymouth story may be fun to draw, color, and perform if you are an innocent child. On the other hand, continuing to believe as an adult that this is what we celebrate on Thanksgiving Day is more than a little ironic.