Turkey, football and uncomfortable family conversations. This is the classic image of Thanksgiving. Everyone has personal variations on the celebration, but Thanksgiving is the one holiday that most Americans seem to recognize in the same way: eating too much while trying to avoid distant relatives, and then passing out from tryptophan in front of the television. It can’t get any more American than that.
To be fair, these traditions do not get to the heart of what Thanksgiving means to the country. Children in elementary school learn about the first Thanksgiving story of a feast between the Pilgrims and Native Americans. They probably even put on funny hats and carry tomahawks around to act out the representation of unity and diversity.
The problem is, if those second-graders performed with historical accuracy, the scene would be much less child-friendly. Cartoons depict the pilgrims as a civilized people generously sharing their advanced ways of life with the less fortunate indigenous people. Not only does this idealized version have an underlying element of white supremacy, but it is also a distortion of reality.
When the pilgrims arrived in the New World, they were not ready or willing to share their stuffing and green bean casserole. On the contrary, relations between the new arrivals and the natives were downright hostile. There is no concrete evidence that this tension suddenly vanished after a particularly prosperous harvest. Historians are not even sure that the Indians were invited to the feast, much less that it was an extravagant bonding experience.
So if this story is neither accurate, nor worthy of commemoration, what is the point of Thanksgiving? The answer is obvious. It probably has something to do with actually giving thanks. Even though the pilgrims were not always the best example, thankfulness is still an admirable virtue. But does it deserve an entire holiday?
The concept of Thanksgiving has become twisted over the years. Gratefulness, family, diversity and harvest are all great things, but none of them actually reflect the true Thanksgiving story. So what do Americans do when they don’t exactly know what they are celebrating? They watch a parade.
Thanksgiving as we know it is not a special cause for celebration. Family should be a part of everyday life. Gratefulness should not be reserved for specific occasions. And everyone should feel absolutely free to have a turkey sandwich whenever they feel like it. An inexact part of American history does not need to be an excuse to reflect on and express thankfulness.
But of course, barring any misconceptions from the original story, there is nothing wrong with a special day of thanks. As long as the importance of daily humility and compassion does not get lost in the festivities, Thanksgiving may be unnecessary, but it is still harmless enjoyment. After all, having time off to enjoy family and food does give a reason to be extra thankful for everything. . . including a parade.