Thursday, November 22, 2012

Myth Making Thanks Giving

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. Feel free to comment on the traditional painting embedded in this post as an another contributor to the Thanksgiving mythology.

14 comments:

Ellen Lyman said...

This post reminds me of a discussion we had back when we were writing our oral history papers. We discussed how when being interviewed, people tend to make themselves seem like more of a "better person" then they actually are. I think Thanksgiving is America's way of upholding a more noble image.

The story of the Pilgrims making peace with the Native Americans through a feast, sounds a lot more heroic than the one of the Pilgrims taking advantage of the plague that devastated the Native Americans.

Lily Stein said...

As evidenced by this post, it is clear that Thanksgiving does not factually represent what actually happened, and it probably took a lot of sugarcoating to cover it up. The painting shows the pilgrims generously giving food to the Indians, who seem to be so graciously accepting it. I highly doubt that this is what the scene truly looked like.
That said, I can't help but think about how important the holiday has really become, whether people know the truth behind it or not. America is a country made up of many different people, many of which are immigrants, and although some might not know the history, Thanksgiving is now a time symbolic of family, friends, and thanks.

Zach Peltz said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Lily Schroeder said...

I would say that "Thanksgiving is now a time symbolic of family, friends, and thanks" because there are so many ways on Thanksgiving not only to see your relatives but also to give back and show your "thanks" for what we are fortunate enough to have. Two events pop into my head right near our homes as a way of giving back-- Feed the Homeless in Winthrop Harbor, where volunteers provide a Thanksgiving meal on Thanksgiving day and the North Shore Turkey Trot, a 5k or 10k run that cannot only benefit those who run it - maybe burn off some calories - but the proceeds go to Black Diamond Charities (helps veterans return to civilian life).

As for the history part of Thanksgiving, I think our learning, as kids, of the holiday is manipulated because we want to put "our" people in a good light. Who would want to hear of a negative history of the pilgrims? From paintings and stories, I think the pilgrims are put on a pedestal, and looked upon as if they have come to save the day.

Hannah DePorter said...

To go back to the analysis of the painting, I think it is depicting our constant stuggle with racism and white people thinking they are superior. All the Indians in the picture are on their knees barely clothed and "begging" for food. The Pilgrims are standing in noble attire giving the Indians food. Like Ellen originally said people have a tendency to make themselves seem like "the better person" and that is exactly what this photo, in my oppinion, depicts, as the Noble Pilgrims are being so humble and kind in giving the inferior race some of their food.

Colin M said...

In response to Zach, I agree that it shows the power of the pilgrims, but would go even further to call this a piece of propaganda. Since the Thanksgiving holiday was created by Lincoln, I would venture that this traditional painting may have been from that era. I think that this is propaganda because the purpose of the holiday was to give Lincoln and the Union a much needed boost of patriotism, so if the painting is from the same time period, I assume that it serves the same purpose.

I also disagree with Lily Stein that Thanksgiving is a time of thanks. Yes, it's a time of friends and family, but how thankful is consuming "copious amounts of turkey, cranberries, and mashed potatoes"? Seeing as many people believe that Thanksgiving is no longer thankful - What is the current spirit of Thanksgiving?

Lily Stein said...

If what Zach means by "actions of thanks" is giving to those less fortunate, then I think that people definitely do more than just saying thanks. Of course there is always more we can do, but Lily gave two great examples of how people give back in her comment. Also, regarding Colin's point about the amount of food we eat, It is true that many people might eat an enormous amount of food on Thanksgiving, but I dont see how that means that we are not thankful. My thanks has little to do with the food I eat on the holiday, but more to do with how lucky I am to be surrounded by my family and friends, to have a roof over my head, and to be able to have enough to eat everyday.

Rachel Hoying said...

I think it is very interesting that many of the previous comments have debated whether modern day thanksgiving is really about giving thanks, when if you look at the primary source about thanksgiving, it says very little about giving thanks. The primary source does mention the native americans and pilgrims having a feast, but it doesn't mention giving thanks at all, except referencing it in the last line. "we are so far from want, that we often wish you partakers of our plenty." In this line, you can assume that the writer is thankful because he said that his is so far from want, however, he never says that the feast was about being thankful. It makes me curious as to how that feast turned into a yearly celebration about giving thanks.

Hannah Waldman said...

Thanksgiving is unique in the fact that it is not a religious holiday. All Americans celebrate. However, the meaning of Thanksgiving has definitely changed since the actual event occured. While then, the celebration was supposedly over a bountiful harvest, today, Thanksgiving is about putting aside your differences, and celebrating family and friends. Most "I am thankful for..." speeches contain something along the lines of "my supportive family and friends". The spirit of Thanksgiving, therefore, is coming together, and showing each other the appreciation that we neglect to express the rest of the year.

Heidi Blumenthal said...

I agree with the historians that suggest that Thanksgiving is a whitewash of history. We have read and heard about many of the brutal conflicts between the white man and the Indians in which the white man was victorious. But those battles coupled with the plagues that affected the Indians, does not put a positive light on the white settlers. For this reason, the victorious white settlers chose not to highlight those events. In fact history is often written by the victorious party, whether it relates to battles or social issues. For example, the accepted account of the Civil War is the story of the North and the accepted account of the American Revolution, is told by Americans not the British. So it is not surprising that we view the Thanksgiving national holiday from the frame of reference of the pilgrims, who did not want to highlight the devastations of the indigenous Indians.

Nicole Popowski said...

I agree with Lily that for most Americans, Thanksgiving is a symbolic time for giving thanks. However, the fact is, it's an American way of thinking. Perhaps we've been celebrating the holiday on the premise that it honors a good and thoughtful tradition, when in reality, the holiday commemorates a massacre. From the Native American perspective, Europeans came over and exterminated nearly the entire native population to create America. Thanksgiving Day may really be a falsified account covering up the horrible crimes most of the first settlers committed.

Even the primary source, like Rachel pointed out, shows no proof of any "thanks" being given. The source only seems to push at the "peace" between the settlers and the natives, "whom for three days we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five Deer." But we know from history that this peace did not last very long.

Christine Ryan said...

I agree with everyone that the meaning of Thanksgiving has been warped over the years. And although as Zach said many people merely say they are thankful, without completely meaning it,I think Thanksgiving is a positive influence in our lives. It is a day where friends and family come together, and spend time together. Many people live far away from their relatives, so Thanksgiving is one of the only times they see each other. And even if everyone doesn't completely mean it when they say they are thankful,having a day where we think about what we have to be thankful for is undoubtably good. A lot of us dont stop to think what is good in our lives, and to have a day where we appreciate all that we have is, in my opinion, very healthy.

Alana said...

As many people have said already the meaning of thanks giving has undoubtably changed through out the coarse of history. When viewing the traditional painting its clear that the white people are being depicted as powerful and superior to the indians. We can tell by the fact that all the white people are well dressed and standing up straight, and the indians are crouched are seated on the ground, and dressed in almost nothing. There seems to be a table in the background that no one is sitting at, why couldn't the indians have sat there? Hannah interpreted it as "depicting our constant stuggle with racism and white people thinking they are superior". I agree that the white people believe they are superior and that the indians are being discriminated against. I do not believe that the White people are doing this to undermined the indians but instead make themselves look better. It is ironic in a way that the white people made the differences between the two groups so clear in this painting because thanksgiving is thought of as a day of appreciation and equality. Edward Winslow's Mourt's Relation discribes Thanksgiving as "special manner rejoice together", the words 'rejoice' and 'together' indicate equality. If the indians were to depict this day how would it contrast to the white peoples depiction?

Sarah Henzlik said...

I agree with Alana that the meaning of thanks really has changed. For example, while the primary source does mention the plentiful food and 'reconciliation' between the Native Americans and the Pilgrims, it leaves out one very important fact: the Pilgrims were the invaders and the Natives were not. Today, the holiday of Thanksgiving has a completely different connotation: time off of school for vacation, football games, and of course Black Friday commercialized, chaos. If Americans today recognized and understood the true meaning of the original Thanksgiving, I think the holiday would be more meaningful and not just something that every American does in late November.