Friday, November 25, 2011

What is the Truth about Thanksgiving?

As we recover from 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.


Jon said...

I think that the concept of what was left out and what was included is interesting. Yet I believe the question to ask here is not "what" was chosen and "what" was not, as this is all somewhat factually based; for instance I learned when I was younger that the Native American tribe of the Wampanoag people willingly fed the hungry pilgrims and in return the far more advanced pilgrims blessed the Natives with their futuristic technology and their efficient ways of building (sense the sarcasm).

That is all "what" - a factual account of what happened. I feel as though the better question to ask is "why" were certain things left out? Was it possibly because of a societal remorse that has been felt for the genocide of the Wampanoag people (of whom I share a small amount of blood), or was/is (I do not know which tense to use here, please pick which one you think works best) it because of an over-accomplished sense of pride and a choice not to entertain certain facts because it brought the lofty society back down to earth.

Can we acknowledge or understand our mistakes? Should we use the past to correct the future? - If we have the opportunity to use mistakes in order to correct behavior, why do we not? This is at the root of the question, I guess I ask "why" anything at all was left out. What do you think?

Emily R. said...

I agree with Jon. It is interesting to think why they would include what they did. After doing the textbook search at the beginning of the year, i was surprised to see what some books put in, while others left it out. Again after doing the Perilous Times project and hearing about the different wars in American History, i was still couldn't believe the amount of important information even my former teachers left out while teaching us about the wars.

Ozakh A. said...

I find this holiday to be much like Halloween in the sense that the true meaning has been forgotten as time has passed and we now only focus on the enticing food or candy. Both holidays lack history. We see Halloween as a time to dress up and eat candy. Similarly, we see Thanksgiving as a time to eat yummy turkey and maybe utter the words, "I'm thankful for my family" between bites.

Mr. Bolos- in your post you stated that Thanksgiving was based off of the American Indians' celebrations of "autumnal harvests." I read that "Both the Separatists who came over on the Mayflower and the Puritans who arrived soon after brought with them a tradition of providential holidays—days of fasting during difficult or pivotal moments and days of feasting and celebration to thank God in times of plenty" ( The difference of information, I think, strengthens both Jon and Emily's point.

AbbeyR said...

Following up on Emily's post, this idea about what information is left out and what is included is much like the activity our American Studies class did with the textbooks. We looked at various textbooks and compared which authors talked about which wars and what they thought was most important to share. Thinking about the question, "What from the traditional holiday celebration i mentioned and what is left out", I believe that it is all up to the author writing and their opinions. Our society cannot keep retelling stories in great detail because they cover too much information, therefore, we must leave out certain details to shorten the story/holiday.

Betsy P said...

As mentioned, our knowledge of historical events is shaped by, “what information is left out and what is included”—creating a whitewash effect. I remember first hearing the term “whitewash” in relation to memory and the stories we tell ourselves as Americans. In my blog post, “A Whitewashed History” I argued that American history is rooted by achievements because our memory naturally chooses to cover up anything that may question the official narrative of American history.

I agree, “celebrations whitewash the permanent colonization of America.” Disease is understated because it conflicts with the accepted story of Thanksgiving. Frederick Douglas caused me to make a connection between the whitewash effect and slavery. Americans tell themselves theories to justify slavery in attempt to reconstruct the story of slavery in a way that fits the official narrative of American history. Frederick Douglas is among the few who weren’t afraid to question the accepted story of slavery and fight against American whitewashing.

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