Not all Americans celebrate Thanksgiving. Indeed, corporate media have eagerly reported on the so-called “National Day of Mourning,” during which liberal activists and indigenous peoples “remember the suffering inflicted in the 1620s” and mourn “the struggles that Indigenous people continue to face today,” according to CNN. A few years ago, Salon published an article on millennials “growing weary about our collective celebration of Thanksgiving.” The author of a 2020 Vogue article declared “This year, however, I’m finally choosing not to be thankful, too.”
It’s not surprising that such protests are gaining in popularity among young Americans. An entire generation of Americans has been catechized in anti-racist political activism, their consciences malformed to constantly scrutinize every aspect of our culture for signs, however tenuous, of bigotry, colonialism, patriarchy, or white supremacy. Thanksgiving, young activists assess, seems guilty of all of the above, and thus must be defamed, dismantled, and replaced, much as innumerable other symbols of national unity have already been toppled. But is the activist narrative about Thanksgiving accurate? And if we repurpose or jettison the holidays that most effectively communicate our national identity and civil religion, what will replace it?
A Holiday of Gratitude
We typically think of Thanksgiving as a commemoration of a meal 401 years ago between recently-arrived English settlers and indigenous peoples in what is now New England. That 1621 event marked the Pilgrims’ first autumn harvest, as English settlers reaped the bounty of crops planted with the help of their Native American neighbors. And it truly was an exercise in true neighborly charity: colonists may have been outnumbered by more than two to one by the Native Americans in attendance, including a local chief, Massasoit.
Yet it was not until the Civil War that the event became an officially recognized national holiday. Before the war, a New England woman named Sarah Josepha Hale — author of “Mary Had a Little Lamb” — lobbied state and federal officials to create a fixed, national day of thanks on the last Thursday of November. Hale believed that such a holiday might help ease rising tensions and divisions between northerners and southerners.
On October 3, 1863, a few months after the Battle of Gettysburg, President Abraham Lincoln issued a proclamation: “I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, …to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving.” Lincoln’s emphasis was expressly focused on gratitude towards God. He wrote:
“And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him …, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to his tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility and Union.”
Thanksgiving isn’t only tied up in our history as a nation of settlers seeking a better life, and their (admittedly often fraught) relationship with indigenous peoples. It’s also about expressing neighborly charity and begging divine assistance to bless our nation and rekindle the unity of our people in our most tortured moments. And it is about caring for the neediest in our land.
Much to Be Grateful for
The end of a bloody Civil War that killed more than 600,000 Americans and resulted in the freeing of three million enslaved Americans should be something all Americans can be grateful for. And regardless of what one thinks of European colonialist expansion into indigenous lands, the premise of that 1621 Thanksgiving — all Americans, regardless of race, heritage, or class joining together in a celebratory feast— should also be something to honor. Or, if one is inclined to Catholic narratives, one can remember Pedro Menéndez de Avilés and 800 Spanish settlers, who in 1565 founded the city of St. Augustine in Spanish La Florida, and, shortly after coming ashore, celebrated a Mass of Thanksgiving.
We certainly have plenty to be grateful for. We remain the wealthiest nation on the face of the earth, one that millions of people, legally and illegally, seek to enter every year. Despite all of our economic travails, we remain one of the best places in the world for entrepreneurs, and a driver of economic growth not only here but around the world. We’ve inspired much of the rest of the world to embrace republican government. We saved the entire world from the totalitarian threats of fascism and communism, which would have imposed levels of racist, misogynist oppression none of us could possibly imagine. And, in part thanks to our current Supreme Court, our constitutional freedoms of religion and speech remain intact and strong.
The Irony of Activist Outrage
Sadly, none of this matters to anti-Thanksgiving activists. Though they possess a standard of living, level of education and degree of freedom that are the envy of literally billions of people across the world, their default emotion towards America is outrage. Though many of the things they enjoy — nice clothes, warm homes, safety and security based on competent police and military — are a result of American republican principles, American ingenuity, and American suffering and courage, they seem oblivious to the origin of these goods.
Indeed, American principles of freedom of speech are the very reason many of these activists are even able to protest a national holiday. In many other nations, such aggressive anti-national sentiments would provoke violence, either from other citizens or the state. Only in America are anti-American activists given such liberty to express their disdain for everything our nation represents. And, as much as it makes my heart break, that is as it should be.
We already have plenty of evidence for what an ungrateful America informed by outraged activism would look like. It looks like toppled statues of George Washington, schools once named after Thomas Jefferson and George Mason rechristened, and missionaries who labored to protect and help indigenous peoples branded colonialists and white supremacists (thanks, AOC!). It is a culture so defined by privilege and narcissism that it is incapable of gratitude to the very people (and God) who have given them such tremendous opportunities and comforts. It is a culture that is capable only of tearing down, because it is premised on the hatred of its patrimony — indeed, it finds the very idea of God as a beneficent father to be offensive.
By its very nature, Thanksgiving is a conservative holiday, because it seeks to conserve a certain understanding of ourselves based on the idea that our nation, whatever its flaws, is something to celebrate and honor. Millions of men and women over many centuries made sacrifices we can only inchoately appreciate so that we can repose in heated homes, fill our bellies, and share our rich bounty with family and neighbors. It is, in a word, a unifying day. Don’t let the activist outrage divide us from one another, or, ultimately, from our heavenly father.