Thanksgiving, like most holidays celebrated around the world, has little to do with the original occasion being celebrated, the first year of survival of the European settlers at Plymouth Rock. Such celebrations are idealized abstractions based on shared values held dearly, whether it is the Haj to Mecca, or the Hindu New Year, Diwali: The Festival of Lights, the French observing May Day with bonfires, eating and drinking into the night, or in the US Americans celebrating Thanksgiving with our families. Many think of it as the uniquely American holiday, though our neighbors to the North also celebrate Thanksgiving the second Monday in October. The mythology of Thanksgiving abundance was a by-product of Normal Rockwell’s magazine cover paintings a happy white Christian family seated around the table before a veritable feast. Americans came to accept that as the reality rather than the mythology of Thanksgiving. The commercialization of holidays in the US reaches its pinnacle, and is cause for understandable cynicism, but not for abandoning the spirit behind some of our more important celebrations.
As more Americans have become aware of White Europeans’ history of appalling mistreatment of the Native American people who first lived in the land we now call America, our discomfort with this holiday has grown. It seems a celebration of white men with guns driving Native people from their land on which they had lived for for a very long time before the White man came. Moreover, the economic disparity which has always beset our country, has grown more pronounced in the past decade, as the rich have grown vastly richer and the average working or unemployed American, far poorer. African Americans, Hispanics, Native Americans and other minority groups continue to suffer economically disproportionately. This year, some of us find it necessary to pinch pennies on our Thanksgiving meal, still reeling from the devastating Recession piled on top of the past 20 years of no wage increases as the cost of living has risen. It’s been the old squeezing blood from a stone situation. For each family that is skipping apple pie with ice cream this year, there are many other families that will have either no Thanksgiving meal or a meal from items obtained at a food pantry, or perhaps a meal provided by a charity. This makes us wonder exactly what it is we are celebrating.
The first Thanksgiving in 1621 wasn’t about abundance either. It was about a year’s survival under impossibly challenging, life threatening conditions. If you thought 2011 and 2012 were bad, you should have seen 1620! It was a celebration of having worked together and helping one another against formidable odds, and survival. It was a observance that of the 102 people who were on the ship that landed, by the end of the first winter, 53 were still alive to enjoy a meal together from the very limited crops they had grown, deer and birds were shot
and cod and bass that were caught. Only nine women and adolescent girls survived. Massasoit, the great Chief of the Wampanoag tribe and 90 of his people arrived with meat, fowl, fish and crops and helped the pilgrims prepare for the upcoming winter. Several of the Wampanoag people shared the meal with them. So perhaps we should approach this year’s Thanksgiving in a similar spirit. We have survived a very difficult year. This primitive painting may actually depict the setting more accurately than many idealized versions.
Our celebration is not about abundance, because very few American experience abundance. We are rediscovering the worth of working together toward a shared cause, of improving the lives of all members of our community. The Pilgrims had left royalty and the landed gentry behind to start life in a world where they believed everyone would be equal. That was, of course, a fiction because the native people and women were not treated as equals, but it was a good starting point that is little by little becoming closer to reality.
We continue to struggle with the notion that everyone must have an opportunity to enjoy the fruits of our labor. It is not necessary to celebrate an extravagance of plenty on Thanksgiving. The holiday is about spending time with our families and friends, not the number of courses in the meal. We have never really come to accept the idea that everyone celebrates Thanksgiving in their own way.
Working in food pantries once or twice a year on holidays is good. It helps a dozen or hundred individuals on that one day, and it relieves the guilt. Thanksgiving is a time to commit our selves to a larger goal that may be possible because of the immediately past national elections. It is time we commit ourselves to doing everything in our power to reduce the gross disparity among our people, to lift up everyone, not just on one day, but all days. Now that the election is over, it is time to begin again in earnest to do what we must, which is to engage the gears of democratic government to make all of our lives better.
It is time to apply our most persuasive pressure on our political leaders and others in the public arena, for the economic reforms necessary to create a better life for all Americans. That must have been the sincerest wish of the Pilgrims on that first Thanksgiving 391 years ago.