Every fall, reports like this one from Newsweek in 2017 seem to appear:
While for most Americans, Thanksgiving Day is for feasting, football and giving thanks, for Native Americans, it is a reminder of dead ancestors, racial slurs still being worn on football jerseys and families around the nation feasting on food from colonized agricultural land.
Native Americans say the day is not a holiday but rather a celebration built on a lie, one they would rather spend indulging in some self-care instead of turkey and yams. Some even refer to the day as Day of Mourning or Unthanksgiving Day.
Yes, schoolchildren learn about the first Thanksgiving, when the pilgrims celebrated their harvest alongside the Native Americans who helped them survive in the New World. But it wholly misses the point to think of Thanksgiving as a commemoration of the Pilgrims’ arrival, or as a kumbaya moment of harmony between Pilgrims and Indians.
After all, the Pilgrims did not invent the idea of Thanksgiving. While we in the United States have transformed the holiday into a day for gratitude or spending time with family and friends, people have been celebrating successful harvests, since, well, probably as long as people have been harvesting.
Colonists in Jamestown celebrated a thanksgiving observance beginning in 1610, eleven years prior to the Pilgrim’s “First Thanksgiving.” (Wikipedia provides some background here.) They didn’t invent the idea of a “thanksgiving” either, as they would have been accustomed to harvest festivals in England. Those practices date back as far as pagan times and exist even now. Traditionally the holiday was celebrated the Sunday closest to the harvest moon (that is, the full moon that occurs nearest the autumn equinox), though in the past, the celebration simply occurred after the harvest was completed. The whole community, including children, helped right up until the end, as lives depended on the success of the harvest.
In the past, the celebrations would be held as soon as the harvest had been completed and the final cartload triumphantly returned to the farm where the Harvest Supper, also known as the “Harvest Home,” would take place.
Such “thanksgivings” or harvest festivals are hardly limited to America and England. Germany has “Erntedankfest,” or “harvest thanksgiving,” on the first Sunday in October (though its observance is generally more limited to church services in modern times). Korea has Chuseok, China has the Mid-Autumn Festival.
Americans seeking to transform Christmas festivities into a non-religious or multi-religious celebration like to say it’s a winter solstice holiday celebrating “light in the darkness,” similar to what other religions observe. Some artificially find commonalities with Hannukah, Kwanzaa, Diwali, and even Ramadan whenever the latter holiday coincides even remotely with Christmastime.
But what’s a preposterous stretch for December holidays is a much more natural connection for Thanksgiving. The celebration of a successful harvest, taken for granted in the West today, was far more important to our ancestors around the world.
It’s extraordinary that we in the year 2018 can take completely for granted that harvests occur as scheduled and food is available in our grocery stores from day to day, with a variety of choices that would have been unimaginable to our ancestors, with the advent of canned food, then frozen food, and the shipping of food harvested in regions with year-round growing seasons.
(Reader, my parents once argued over whether it was a special treat to have an orange, when they were children. Mom grew up in St. Louis and remembered it being perfectly ordinary; Dad grew up on a farm outside Denver and remembered quite the opposite. My husband’s mother grew up in communist Poland and was puzzled what kind of giant yellow bean she was being handed, when she arrived in West Germany, since she’d never seen a banana.)
So, sure, we can argue about whether the injustices Native Americans suffered taint Thanksgiving, or whether it’s right or wrong to remember this moment of unity at all. We can delve deep into the historical context and argue about whether the Europeans bear moral responsibility for the diseases they carried with them, and dispute whether children using paper bags to dress as Pilgrims and Indians is a charming tradition or supremely insensitive.
Or we can celebrate Thanksgiving as our ancestors did, as a moment to reflect on the extraordinary blessings of our modern era, when hunger and disease and infant mortality, so common in the past, are now so rare that we see them as a great tragedy rather than a natural part of life.`