A day or two back I tried to defend the traditional American Thanksgiving from critics who claim it doesn’t accurately represent historical facts. I entirely agree that the holiday does not accurately represent historical facts. It glosses over the colonial foundation of this country that was not pleasant. We especially like to think of colonial brutality as especially offensive to our more civilized values today…although I think that perspective is rather short and quickly becomes hypocritical.
I am rethinking my criticism of historical purists, but I still want defend Thanksgiving — the national holiday established by Abraham Lincoln in 1864 — against the purists.
First, for some fun, let’s look at this painting from Jean Leon Gerome Ferris titled “The First Thanksgiving 1621”. It is fantastic!
What we see here is an idealized representation of the Thanksgiving myth, folklore. However, the symbolism is astonishing. Painted around 1912-1915, it represents our views at the time of relations among colonists and native Americans. The Indians appear grateful and submissive seated on the ground receiving handouts while the Europeans stand off to the side around a table, confident and proud. Also note the matronly European woman guiding her Indian counterpart into the party. Even the dog and kids stand aside apparently taking in with indifference the generosity being shown to the native guests.
None of it stands up to facts. Even the attire worn by the Europeans and Native Americans is all wrong. So, yes, in a serious way this disregard for fact covers the bleaker reality that many hundreds of thousands — if not millions — of native Americans died as a consequence of colonialism whether indirectly from disease or more violently from war and murder. Also, the native Americans helped the colonists learn how to live in the American wilderness and thus feed them, not the other way around. Again, yes, this history should be taught correctly.
However, does that change Thanksgiving, the holiday?
Yesterday a friend told me she heard that the real Thanksgiving was about taking over land and killing Indians. The brutality was going so well the pilgrims decided to celebrate with a feast! Clearly those who argue that we should be true to history have a point. The truth about “Thanksgiving” isn’t this ugly one either.
When we celebrate Thanksgiving, we celebrate a 19th century story about people coming together and being thankful for food, friendship, and community. The very idea behind this holiday was to create a story that reinforced the ideals of shared sacrifice and success. Ultimately, I would argue, Thanksgiving — the holiday, remember — has very little to do with colonialism at all. It is an idealized past used to frame a story, one that I believe should be respected and celebrated.
After all, isn’t nice to walk down the street and hear people greet each other and smile? “Happy Thanksgiving!”