Thanksgiving: On Origins and Deviations

As a holiday in practice, I like Thanksgiving. The family, the food (especially), the remembrance of the past year is all very wholesome.

But like a lot of things, the representation departs from the origin.

Thanksgiving Day is also known as The National Day of Mourning among Native American Tribes.

Early European settlers were some of the first slave traders of the New World, and Native Americans were part and parcel to this. Relations among Natives and settlers were strained, as one can imagine, but Pilgrims and Wampanoags did hold a feast in 1621. This was facilitated in part by Squanto, a Christian-convert, escaped slave (captured by who, would you guess?), English speaker, and a member of the Wampanoag tribe.

All good so far.

Skirmishes, mistrust, disease, and utopian pursuits eventually led to wars and massacres, as occurred in 1637. In what is now a small town in Connecticut, over 700 men, women and children of the Pequot Tribe were gathered for their annual Green Corn Festival, similar to our modern day holiday. They were surrounded by English and Dutch mercenaries, demanded to submit to Christianity, and then murdered.

Allegedly, the governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony declared “A Day Of Thanksgiving” the next day, as a celebration over the “savages.”

As the years have passed, Thanksgiving, the narrative as a holiday of celebration, has been shaped to become what we know today.

The implication of a shifting story is profound. It’s easy to reframe events to give it a better spin, to ignore certain details; to anesthetize it. And the farther we get from the original events, the less important the truth may seem, given the emotional and time distance. After all, we are driven by emotions, and the modern incarnation feels good.

You may say, “What’s so bad? Why can’t we separate the past from today’s holiday? Evolution of a holiday seems normal. I like being in company with family and friends. I like celebrating with loved ones.”

As a standalone event, I’d agree. Thanksgiving in today’s practice is a nice festivity, and is a way to promote certain values that a lot of us can get behind, that of thanks, humility, togetherness.

But, we are part of a longer narrative, and today is an extension of what has already occurred. Events don’t happen in isolation, so we can’t ignore what preceded it. To ignore the past is to be disconnected from reality. Today’s actions will continue into the future.

Put another way, the essence of a thing becomes manipulated if we let it. Like a day of thanks that disregards its bloody beginnings. Or how Christmas has become about spending money.

In the end, the original intent is lost and we celebrate in bad faith, if we choose to disregard the past.

Photo source: Wikimedia Commons