I guess it’s time for the Thanksgiving Rant.
I’ve always liked Thanksgiving. No, I’ll go further and say that in many ways it is my favorite holiday. It’s an amalgam of a harvest festival, a kind of celebration that goes back in some form for as long as humans have been growing and harvesting food, and more spiritual traditions of marking gratitude. It is a glorious feast day to acknowledge bounty and give thanks for everything that we have, be it food or family or just being alive.
Even though those Thanks were traditionally sent off to some form of God, it’s a holiday that works just fine for atheists like myself - gratitude need not have an object, and its practice develops humility and empathy. Plus, cooking for people and eating with them just feels good.
The iconography of American Thanksgiving as we know it is startlingly recent, solidified around the middle of last century. Someone made up a story of American Thanksgiving, a story that took a genuine historical account of a Pilgrim thanksgiving in Plymouth, and they romanticized the hell out of it. The story of a desperate ship full of starving and ill-equipped settlers having their asses saved by a handful of native people, became a story of Pilgrims being greeted with love and sharing food with the simple but welcoming Indians.
Not so much a story of thanks or humility, but a story America really wanted to believe about itself in the 50’s - that those Pilgrims and Indians forged a friendship and set the stage for a beautiful new nation on this continent. A story of ancestors who came in good faith to a land of plenty and were welcomed in - and practically handed the whole continent on a silver platter. It wasn’t just about that one group of Pilgrims, that one Thanksgiving meal, it was symbolic of the settling of the continent and the origins of America.
Somehow, this became -the- story of Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving came to mean a big roast turkey and Pilgrims feasting in harmony with Indians. Not the practice of gratitude, not humility, not sharing. Sure, those things were in there, but the story? The reason for the season? The thing being commemorated? Pilgrims and Indians. America.
Which is a shame, because the gratitude, sharing, and humility are great bases for a holiday. A secular holiday, no less, one of the very few holidays that can be celebrated genuinely and without hypocrisy by people of any faith or no faith. It is, in principle, a truly universal celebration - it requires no veneration of men historical or fictional, no commemoration of past events, no worship of gods, no saints, no spirits, no animism, no patriotism, no devotion to tribe. It is human, purely human, to harvest, and eat, and be grateful to be alive.
But that damn story. Here I am wanting to enjoy my atheist Thanksgiving of food and thankfulness and friends, but everyone is mad, because Pilgrims and Indians and America. The story of the early Pilgrim settlements and their relationships with other colonists and multiple native tribes is a long and complicated one, but the end of that story is a continent settled by Europeans in waves of blood. How can you enjoy that turkey? Don’t you know what it stands for? It stands for Genocide, you ass.
Poor Thanksgiving, a beautiful concept saddled with a racist back story it never asked for. I fought against this for a long time, defending the holiday that lived in my head, standing up for the things Thanksgiving is -supposed- to mean. Like that one kid at school, who used to defend his use of a particular racist slur, who pointed out that the word had a life and a meaning before it was used to describe people with dark skin. Because, technically, you see, just because these people think it’s a slur doesn’t mean it isn’t a legitimate word, and if you look back to the origins...
Here’s the thing: That word doesn’t mean that anymore, if it ever did at all. And Thanksgiving doesn’t mean secular gratitude anymore - maybe it only ever did in my own imagination.
What people hear when we use these words is not up to us. Nor to the dictionary, nor history, nor etymology, nor our wishful thinking and good intentions. It doesn’t matter what Thanksgiving is -supposed- to mean, or what really happened that one year at Plymouth. American Thanksgiving means Pilgrims and Indians and America now, it stands for the whole awful history of European settlement and the eradication of indigenous peoples. I wish it didn’t, but it does.
More to the point, I -know- that it does. If I defend Thanksgiving, no matter what the story is in my mind, I know that what people hear is a defense, or at the very best a profound ignorance, of that awful history. If I know that, and continue to sing the praises of the holiday, what exactly am I trying to achieve? The redefinition of Thanksgiving itself? The return to an ancient definition of a word I like? Is that really the battle I want to fight?
No, it isn’t a battle I want to fight. It’s not a battle I can win.
Moreover, winning it would mean shutting down a venue for a story we really should listen to, an ugly history America really needs to acknowledge and come to terms with. That Thanksgiving has become about Pilgrims and Indians gives native voices a bullhorn, and an opportunity to speak out about genocide and the American myth. Pilgrim and Indian Thanksgiving demands that we think about our history with native Americans, and we really ought to do that.
So where does that leave me, with my turkey, and my family, and my profound gratitude for the bounty I have access to? I still advocate for a secular day of gratitude, I still enjoy cooking and eating with friends and family. Turkey and pumpkin pie are still great. I still reject the iconography of American Thanksgiving, but I no longer want to reclaim that name.
Let Thanksgiving be a catalyst for conversation, or become Indigenous Peoples day, or just let it fade away. I’ll celebrate the harvest festival, or the equinox, or Friendsgiving, I’ll talk about what I am thankful for, and about the indigenous genocide, because those are not mutually exclusive, and they are both important.