I’m pretty cynical about the “true meaning” of most holidays, but I like the idea of Thanksgiving. A lot of people who share the Native American portion of my heritage don’t agree, but that’s mostly about some false notion that Thanksgiving is about Pilgrims and Indians.
While there was most certainly a day of giving thanks by the Pilgrims in the fall of 1621 and another in the summer of 1623, those events were not particularly unusual or noteworthy. Harvest celebrations were common among many cultures, including native ones. The accounts I’ve read of what was said by people such as Robert Bradford and Edward Winslow included a lot of thanking of God, but barely a mention of the Indians who taught them how to farm in the New World and saved their asses those first couple of years. Shouldn’t they have been the ones to be thanked?Thanksgiving wasn’t really celebrated as a national holiday for about a century and a half after the Pilgrims. It certainly didn’t continue at all as a tradition among the Wampanoags of Massachusetts, because they all died, mostly of disease, within a few years of the Pilgrims’ arrival. I don’t hear too many giving thanks for that these days.
Some form of Thanksgiving holiday has generally existed in the U.S. since the Continental Congress made its first proclamation about it in 1777 — with no reference to the Pilgrims, by the way. For many decades, Thanksgiving was declared on a year-by-year basis by the President. It was often celebrated on different dates and in different ways by the various states. George Washington and Abraham Lincoln made some of the most famous proclamations of taking a day to celebrate thankfulness, but neither had anything to say about the Pilgrims, Plimouth, the native people, or anything of that time period. They were much more interested in being thankful for recent and future battlefield victories.
There was little consistency, however. For instance, President Jefferson never declared a Thanksgiving Day during his presidency. It wasn’t until FDR pushed for it to be a standardized date in the earl ’40s that what we now know as Thanksgiving Day really began to solidify as a tradition.
So as interested as I am in studying history and preserving the past, this day we in the U.S. set aside every November really is completely a reflection of whomever is celebrating it and what they choose to be thankful for at the present time. Most Americans acknowledge the day in some way, usually getting together with family and friends and sharing food.
That’s the part I really like — the way it goes across cultures and religions. Even though the Pilgrims were Christian, it’s not specifically about being Christian at all. Every culture in some way values thankfulness, gratefulness, gratitude — or at least appreciation — of life. It’s something we can all agree on.
As a teacher, I think making a big deal out of the Pilgrims and the “first Thanksgiving” is wrong on many levels, including perpetuating historical inaccuracies and disregarding similar celebrations and traditions of cultures other than 17th century separatist British Christians.
I’m thankful for a lot of things, the most important of which is having a great family and wonderful friends. Due to a set of circumstances that I won’t bore you with, I nearly had to spend Thanksgiving in a hospital bed this year with my family 80 miles away. The fact that it didn’t end up that way is much more a product of doctors and nurses doing their jobs very well during a busy and very personal time of the year than with any sort of special divine providence. If you think about the bigger picture, it’s also owed to the pursuit of science and reason through history — the courage of those people who have persistently sought truth in the face of opposition by religious dogmatists.
An infection of the type I encountered is now fought with some bags of fluid dripping into a person’s arm. But for most of human history, it would have been a lot more serious. I did not have spirits that needed to be driven out as the Pilgrims might have thought. I had bacteria that needed to be neutralized by antibodies of a quantity and type that my body was not able to produce on its own.
For the scientists that developed these wonderful and powerful medicines, I am thankful.
For the doctors and nurses that treated me with kindness and attention on a couple of snowy days just before a big holiday, I am thankful.
For my friends at work who rallied and took the time to make sure my students and their substitute teacher had what they needed for a couple of days and then supported me with well-wishes and offers of more support, I am thankful.
For my family, who expressed disappointment at the possible prospect of not getting released for Thanksgiving and then showing me such love when I was able to make it to Rochester on Thursday, I am thankful.
But if I had needed to spend Thanksgiving day in the hospital, I would have been just as thankful, because of all of those people acting in such a human way toward not only me, but anyone else in the same situation.
Yesterday was a good day. Today is, too. Nobody knows about tomorrow yet.
For those of you for whom things aren’t going so well right now, my heart goes out to you. I hope I can help in some way.
It’s not about the Pilgrims, folks.