Sunday, November 21, 2010

The Truth About Thanksgiving?

As we prepare to take a well-deserved break from school so that we may spend time with family and stuff ourselves with copious amounts of turkey, cranberries, and mashed potatoes, it may be instructive to consider what we really know about the origins of our Thanksgiving holiday celebration.

According to James Loewen's Lies My Teacher Told Me, the Pilgrims did not start the Thanksgiving tradition; instead, east coast Indians had celebrated autumnal harvests for hundreds of years. In fact, our modern celebration only dates back to President Lincoln's 1863 proclamation of a national Thanksgiving holiday (during the perilous times of the Civil War), when the Union badly needed a boost of patriotism. The Pilgrims of New England were not even incorporated into the tradition for another 30 years.

There are literally only two brief primary sources that deal with what happened in the Fall of 1621 in Plymouth, Massachusetts. The most familiar might be Edward Winslow's Mourt's Relation (modernized spelling below) in which he stated:

our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after a special manner rejoice together, after we had gathered the fruits of our labors; they four in one day killed as much fowl, as with a little help beside, served the Company almost a week, at which time amongst other Recreations, we exercised our Arms, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and amongst the rest their greatest king Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five Deer, which they brought to the Plantation and bestowed on our Governor, and upon the Captain and others. And although it be not always so plentiful, as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so far from want, that we often wish you partakers of our plenty.

What from the traditional holiday celebration is mentioned and what is left out? Furthermore. the above-mentioned event lacks historical context. For example, why exactly were the Indians so willing to sit down with these "invaders"? Toward answering that question, some historians have argued that our yearly celebrations whitewash the permanent colonization of America that might have been impossible without the devastating (but unintentional) plagues that preceded the Pilgrim arrival. This (understated) onslaught of disease might have been the most important single occurrence in the history of America.


Carolyn F said...

The original Thanksgiving was a very religious celebration, it was all about thanking God for the first harvest being successful. Now Thanksgiving is about the food. And, if I remember correctly, the Indians had Thanksgiving with the pilgrims because Squanto, who helped the pilgrims with planting and harvesting, organized peace treaties between the Indians and the pilgrims. The plagues arrived later as more settlers came to North America. Had the plagues not occurred, it's hard to say that America would still be America today because there would have been even more Native American resistance than there was. So in that sense, the plagues are part of the reason that America exists. But they aren't the only part because the colonists also had to fight Great Britain in the Revolutionary War in order to become America. Native Americans were a physically, present barrier, and Great Britain was a barrier an ocean away. Logically then, "beating" the Native Americans with plague was more important than beating Great Britain in the Revolutionary War.

Remy said...

I did some research on the Indian chief Massasoit. Massasoit was the chief of the Wampanoag Indians. He was born somewhere around 1580. His territory started in Cape Cod and went all the way to Narraganset Bay. At one time there were 30,000 people in his tribe, but just before the arrival of the Mayflower they had almost been wiped out by smallpox, spotted fever, typhoid and the measles, which left only one estimate of only around 300 people. The diseases came from English fishermen starting in 1618. In 1621 Massasoit went to New Plymouth and a peace treaty was made. This treaty was never broken by the Wampanoag while Massasoit was alive. Massasoit also encouraged other tribes to make peace treaties with the English Puritans. I think many people do not know the real origin of this beloved American holiday. By all accounts I read Massasoit was a magnanimous leader, patient and generous with the arrival of the religious zealots despite the devastation his tribe had suffered. Grace probably did not mean much to the Wampanoag---Massasoit made sure his people never converted to Christianity.

Chlo Scho said...

I remember talking about this back in junior high and it depressed me for a week. It's not fun to think that one of the big three holidays for me is not only kind of a sham, the people I've learned about my whole life destroyed a population and culture with awful diseases. The worst part of it all is the fact that up until 7th grade I had been taught the same thing my parents learned and their parents learned without any sort of change. I still have the first pilgrim hat I ever drew in my baby book, and to think that when I was learning about that hat I was being told untruths, its disheartening at best.

Hayley H. said...

It doesn't surprise me that the story of this holiday was basically a "sham," as the disappointed Chlo Scho stated. I think it's so interesting that Loewen wrote "Lies My Teacher Told Me" because it relates all the way back to the beginning of the year when we first questioned how truthful the media is to the gullible public. This book exemplifies all that we have been learning this year about thinking critically and deciphering what is true for ourselves, rather than relying on what the media, or an adult tells us. It is definitely sad that such a beloved holiday in America has suffered the same fate as many news events do today.

ReedKO said...

I find it truly amazing at how blatantly some of America's public schools have been, in a sense, corrupting the youths. I specifically remember stories from grade school that taught us children how the Pilgrims came to America and graced the Native Americans with a bountiful feast that lasted for many days. Until ten minutes ago, when I first read this blog, I had the same view about Thanksgiving as most Americans: Other than the fourth of July, Thanksgiving is the staple American holiday. We created Thanksgiving, and celebrated our creation annually. Now that I know Thanksgiving was a holiday that was stolen from the Native Americans, I realize how all i have learned about Thanksgiving up until now is false.

Sarah said...

Check out this video:

It seems to me that the true "meaning" of thanksgiving has changed as years have gone on. This video shows how thanksgiving has evolved over the years - and new tradtions have been created. This idea of "meanings changing over time" is EXACTLY what I blogged about this week. Check it out!

Will P said...

Despite what falsehoods you may have learned in the past, it is still important to remember what Thanksgiving means for us today. It's a time for friends and family alike to give thanks for what they have. It is also a time for just having fun and eating a delicious feast. I wouldn't call Thanksgiving a "sham." Maybe it just needs to be taught better in school.

Glenna said...

This reminds me of Christopher Columbus. Up until recently, teachers had said that Columbus discovered America, thought he was in India, and lived his life as a wealthy man thanks to his discoveries. As lessons became more in depth I learned that Chris Columbus was no hero. He was hungary for gold and acquired it at the loss of many Native American lives.

Keeping in mind- Will's comments are very true. Remembering the past, of course, is important so that we can prevent its repetition. Dwelling on it, though, reaps no reward.

S. Bolos said...

Love love love the research (Remy) and the thoughts on this post, including the video link (Sarah) and the media literacy piece (Hayley). It's what makes exploring this online as good as or better than what happens just in the classroom.

In case you haven't had a chance to read Loewen's book (which I highly recommend), he ends the T-Day chapter as follows:

"I have focused here on untoward detail only because our histories have suppressed everything awkward for so long". He goes on to praise the fortitude of the Pilgrims and reminds the reader that US History is no more violent than the history of other countries, but that it's not LESS violent, either. "The antidote to feel-good history is not feel-bad history but honest and inclusive history". Shouldn't we welcome the fact that "[c]onflict would then become part of the story, and students might discover that the knowledge they gain has implications for their lives today" (88)?

So enjoy your turkey on Thursday. Unless you're vegetarian, of course. ;)

Jenn M. said...

First of all, Happy Thanksgiving to all!

I watched the video you posted on this. I had no idea that this was ever a religious holiday. I also find it a little ironic that what we now think of as a day of feasting was actually one of many days of fasting.

Lincoln declared Thanksgiving a national holiday in the 1860s. I did some research and found that idea came to him from Sarah Hale, the author of "Mary Had a Little Lamb". Hale wrote letters to Lincoln and encouraged others to do the same. She wrote "This objective is to have... Thanksgiving made a national [holiday]."

To check out the letter she wrote go to this site:

Valerie Ceaser said...

Many people have criticised the American educational system for "corrupting the youths." Although in a sense we have not been taught the honest truth, I in no way feel that we were intentionally taught lies. Think about it. A kindergarden teacher is not going to talk to the class about the violence and disease us Americans brought upon the innocent Native Americans. But we did learn the truth eventually. Seventh grade, wasn't? And as Chlo Sco stated, she had "been taught the same lies her parents and their parents were taught."
I just called in my mom and asked her what happened in the first thanksgiving. She replied, "Well the Indians shared their food with the first pilgrims." True, sort of. But that is the main idea. Thanksgiving was about being thankful for the bounty of food, but also for the peace between the Native Americans and the pilgrims. Today, the message is still the same. Namely, be thankful.

trevork said...

To address Valerie, I think that although we learned the "truth" in about seventh grade or so, we also attend some of the best public junior highs in the country. This means that many other kids, as with some of our parents, who do not receive the same education as we do, do not ever learn the "truth" behind Thanksgiving.

Also, I agree with Will that although Thanksgiving does not have accurate representation, I am not sure how much that still matters today. Today Thanksgiving allows time for a break, in which family can get together to eat. Also, people often think about what they are thankful for. Thanksgiving is not a commemoration of the past, so much as a family reunion. At least for my family, I know we do not even mention the pilgrims and Indians, in fact, until now I have not even thought of them, because that is not important to me. Lincoln created this holiday during the civil war for a boost of patriotism for the union. Today, Thanksgiving remains a boost of patriotism for the country, and even when times are tough for many families, it is a time to get together, celebrate, and remember what you are thankful for.

Kasia said...

I found what C Fish said pretty interesting. I actually had no idea that Thanksgiving used to be a religious holiday. While some of you say learning the truth about Thanksgiving is 'disheartening', this bit of history from Carolyn was sort of comforting... Thanksgiving transformed from a religious holiday. Now, I feel as if Thanksgiving has almost entirely strayed away from the idea of Pilgrims and such. As many of you mentioned, it has turned into a holiday of showing appreciation for all you are given. While this isn't as much about God or Pilgrims as it once was, I believe it's still a dang good thing to celebrate! And if Thanksgiving was able to stray away from religion, why can't it also stray away from the idea of peaceful Pilgrims and Indians, true or not?