I’m up way too late tonight gathering educational Thanksgiving stuff on the Internet for homeschool this week. I’ve printed out copies of the one primary historical document describing the pilgrim’s feast in 1621 and found some short YouTube videos about the facts and myths surrounding Thanksgiving. I’m looking forward to sharing some genealogy with my kids and showing them that we are the direct descendants of John and Priscilla Alden who were both Mayflower passengers as well as attendees in the “First Thanksgiving” feast.
For most of my early life I didn’t think about why Thanksgiving may not be a happy day for all Americans. But the more I learned about the atrocities endured by America’s native peoples, the more muddled and complicated the Thanksgiving celebration became in my mind. Eight years ago I stumbled on Mitchel Cohen’s “Why I Hate Thanksgiving,” and it really rattled me. “What do Indian people find to be Thankful for in this America? What does anyone have to be Thankful for in the genocide of the Indians, that this ‘holyday’ commemorates?” he asked. But as much as his words rattled me, I felt compelled to meet Cohen’s staunch cynicism with optimism and hope.
So, eight years ago, reeling from Cohen’s anti-Thanksgiving diatribe, I was looking for more perspective and understanding. In my search, I found an article by Guenter Lewey called, “Were American Indians the Victims of Genocide?” Lewey wrote:
In the end, the sad fate of America’s Indians represents not a crime but a tragedy, involving an irreconcilable collision of cultures and values. Despite the efforts of well-meaning people in both camps, there existed no good solution to this clash. . . . The consequence was a conflict in which there were few heroes, but which was far from a simple tale of hapless victims and merciless aggressors. To fling the charge of genocide at an entire society serves neither the interests of the Indians nor those of history (Source).
There’s no question that the treatment of America’s native people was a great tragedy. Atrocious things happened. And it is horrible that those things happened. I’ve written before about my desire to publicly and openly apologize for the sins of my ancestors, and I do believe such acts are important and needed. But how does it serve love and goodness and humanity to defame and boycott Thanksgiving? What good can come of it?
Some people claim that the first Thanksgiving was actually celebrated by the colonists in 1637 following the Pequot massacre–that it was about giving thanks for the deaths of 700 members of the Pequot tribe. There may have been feasts of celebration at that time, but the Pilgrims of Plymouth did not participate in the Pequot massacre. The Pilgrims did, however, have a celebration in 1621 following a plentiful harvest. And their three days of feasting and revelry were attended by Massasoit and 90 natives, far outnumbering the Pilgrims. Both the natives and the Pilgrims contributed to the feast. Historian Patricia Deetz explains, “There would have been gunfire, running and jumping, laughter and shouting–in two languages” (source).
What harm is there in commemorating a moment in time when there was peace and friendship between the Pilgrims and the American Indians, albeit a brief moment? Can’t we look with hope to that 1621 celebration? Can’t we see it as evidence that somewhere deep inside of us we do have the capacity to get along with each other?
Regardless of what feasts of Thanksgivings may have occurred throughout U.S. history for a wide variety of reasons, we have inherited a national holiday on the last Thursday in November (thanks to Sarah Josepha Hale’s tireless efforts) declared by Abraham Lincoln as a “day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens” (Source). And, we have, as most cultures do, tales and folklore associated with our national celebrations. Stories and myths and traditions and foods (it’s debatable whether the Pilgrims ate turkey for their feast, and they definitely didn’t have pumpkin pie, stuffing, or sweet potatoes) and a rich cultural experience surround this day. Though some of it may not be grounded in solid fact, those traditions were built up around the concept of “giving thanks,” and, ultimately, in my mind, it’s a day full of love.
Regardless of what anyone claims to be the “real” first Thanksgiving, we all have the freedom to choose what Thanksgiving means to us. And I choose to see hope in it. I choose to embrace the quaint and sweet story of the Pilgrims and natives sharing a moment of friendship, even if it is not representative of the majority of the colonists’ interactions with them. It is stories like the “first Thanksgiving” that have staying power and are passed down–precisely because they are so rare. We love and embrace them because they are evidence of deep-down-goodness and a glimmer of what is possible when we choose to lay aside differences and laugh together.
Humanity has seen so much war and pain. Humanity continues to see so much war and pain. But I also see progress. And I have hope.
That’s why I love Thanksgiving.