In 1863, in the midst of the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln declared a Thanksgiving Proclamation, asking Americans to “set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise [to God]”, in order to celebrate the war effort and the gifts they had been given.
Americans have since commercialized this proclamation into a holiday of consumption. We circle around a table, gorge on turkey, stuffing, cranberry sauce and sweet potatoes — in 2012, Americans bought 46 million turkeys, 768 million pounds of cranberries, and 2.7 billion pounds of sweet potatoes for Thanksgiving, according to National Geographic News — then watch football and the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade until we succumb to a food coma and pass out.
We have become socialized since childhood to follow these ideas and traditions. In elementary school, kids outline their hands with marker, creating turkeys and other holiday crafts.
They also learn about the Pilgrims and Native Americans peacefully sharing a meal. The emphasis is solely on the brave Pilgrims who left their homeland in search of a new, free world — Pilgrims who are shown as heroic for unabashedly braving the unknown aboard the Mayflower on their way to Plymouth Rock.
But the idea of Thanksgiving as a meal between congenial groups perpetuates the fallacy of the “discovery” of the New World by the Pilgrims. MU student Amina Zuna, who is involved in social justice communities on campus, said learning the reality of Thanksgiving is important.
“Painting over the reality of colonialism to make ourselves and our society feel better is not acceptable,” Zuna said. “It happened the way it did, and that's how it should be taught. No one should rewrite history to make themselves look better.”
It’s not as clear-cut as your fourth grade teacher might have made you think.
The real story of Thanksgiving
The Mayflower left England in 1620 and brought 102 Puritan passengers to the New World, in search of religious freedom. Only half of these original Pilgrims survived the first winter. Those who did, however, were malnourished and fought scattered illnesses.
In March, the survivors met a Native American for the first time: a member of the Abenaki tribe who greeted them in English. This Native American man introduced the Pilgrims to Squanto, a member of the Pawtuxet tribe who taught them how to survive in the New World. Squanto also began an alliance among the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag tribe. This alliance is one of the most harmonic of that time.
The following November showed improvement, because the Pilgrims farmed a successful corn crop. Their governor, William Bradford, created a celebratory meal (which lasted three days) and invited some Native American allies, including the Wampanoag tribe.
They didn’t eat turkey. The first Thanksgiving included a feast of deer, native vegetables, berries, eel, shellfish, clams, ducks and geese. There were no pumpkin pies—or pastries in general—at the first Thanksgiving, either. They did not have the ovens yet to cook the flaky crust that we salivate over. There were no bread-based stuffings.
During the first Thanksgiving, they used herbs and nuts to stuff birds. You can say goodbye to cranberry sauce, too. Sugar, which is used in cranberry sauce, was considered an expensive delicacy in the 17th century. The supply shipped with the Mayflower was dwindling by the fall of 1621.
Between 1621 and 1637, relations between Native Americans and religious Puritans changed as more foreigners entered the mainland, specifically Boston.
In 1637, Puritans set Pequot land on fire and murdered 700 people. After this massacre, the governor of Massachusetts ordered “A day of Thanksgiving, thanking God that they had eliminated over 700 men, women and children,” according to the Republic of Lakota website.
By 1675, there was war between the Wampanoag chief, Metacomet, and the Puritans as the Puritans began imposing power upon the Wampanoag tribe. They declared that Metacomet could not sell his land without approval of the Puritans. War continued for decades, and in 1704 Gov. Joseph Dudley called for a Thanksgiving to celebrate “God’s goodness … in defeating … the expeditions of the Enemy [Native Americans] against us.”
With all this violence, elementary school teachers may find difficulty with how they should teach this subject. MU history professor Jay Sexton said he would teach his daughters the layered details of Thanksgiving.
“Teachers shouldn’t teach gory details of battle,” Sexton said. “With my daughter, I would just talk her through it. In high school, that’s when you can connect themes. Gore is not the only theme — some of that complexity is flattened in the sense that it becomes binary. It is not good group versus a bad group; it is more textured.”
While the real Thanksgiving was not quite exactly how we imagined as kids, with popcorn, jelly beans, pretzels and toast like in A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving, boycotting it because of its altered meaning is not the path to follow. Sexton considers Thanksgiving a nation-uniting force.
“Anytime there is a shared civic experience where different groups of people celebrate a shared heritage of our country, civilly, not ethnically, is a distinctive, great thing,” Sexton said. “Shared cultural practices are the backbone for this nation. This annual moment should be marked appropriately and used as an opportunity to examine the broader forces that show the myth of Thanksgiving.”
Edited by Katherine White | firstname.lastname@example.org