Thanksgiving is a holiday of excess. It’s the time of the year when Americans can gather together and glut themselves without shame. It’s a day for food and family and preparation for Friday’s shopping frenzy.
Of course, this holiday is not alone in being indulgent: Christmas has become a shopping extravaganza; Halloween justifies copious chocolate consumption; people go crazy with fireworks on the Fourth of July.
Yet these celebrations, for the most part, don’t have much of a troubled history. The same can’t be said for Thanksgiving, a holiday that has a problematic relationship with this country’s penchant for forgetting its shameful past.
The reasoning behind Thanksgiving is fairly straightforward and seemingly well intended. Lowercase “t” thanksgiving celebrations were commonplace among colonists in the early years of the European exploration of the Americas. Unsurprisingly, these were simply ceremonies meant to express gratitude, to give thanks for a safe sea voyage, for food, for survival.
One such celebration held at the Plimoth Plantation colony sometime in 1621 is now commonly considered the basis of our current holiday. This three-day feast marked the end of the harvest and the sheer fact that the Pilgrims lived through the year. Colonial life was not easy, and it’s unlikely they would have survived without the help of the local Wapanoag tribe.
Though certainly very different from our current perception of the holiday, this celebration did include a large meal shared by both the Pilgrims and the Wapanoag. It was a moment of peace, a moment of true gratitude.
Unfortunately, however, such moments were a rarity.
Despite a considerable amount of cooperation between colonists and native populations, the process of colonization was markedly bloody. While massacres and acts of violence were perpetrated by both parties, only one side was fighting for their ancestral home, and only one side was nearly wiped out.
A mere 50 years after the Plymouth thanksgiving, war had brought the American Indian population of New England down by 60 to 80 percent. This was only the beginning.
The origins of Thanksgiving, then, consist of one cooperative event taken out of context from a history of bloodshed and oppression.
Though long celebrated informally, Thanksgiving didn’t become a national holiday until the presidency of Lincoln. It’s clear why he would have wanted the formalization of such a holiday: such a commemoration of shared values, of mutual things to be thankful for, all celebrated on the same day across the country might help to unite a nation that was breaking at the seams.
While too late to do any good, this measure seems to have been made with noble hopes. But within these good intentions lay what is ultimately the moral corruption of the holiday.
As Americans feasted for the first official Thanksgiving, ostensibly remembering the kindness of American Indians, the nation was actively driving tribes from their homes in the West and butchering those that resisted.
What makes Thanksgiving somewhat distasteful is how the holiday purports to celebrate American Indian history but really, it does the opposite.
With this holiday, American Indians are swept under the national rug with all the other dirty secrets we want to forget. Thanksgiving was never about American Indians. It was about promoting a narrative of unity and thankfulness, which necessarily demoted and brought out of the picture anything that we might not be so thankful for.
Thanksgiving is a holiday of forgetting. It is a time of focusing on food and remembering a historical past that hardly existed at all. This holiday was put in place to serve the purposes of a narrative, to implicitly justify white rule and therefore to trivialize the oppression and death of non-whites.
That’s its history, but even today Thanksgiving feels like a convenient time of forgetting. It comes only days after riots over the death of Michael Brown, a black man whose killer will go untried, and in a year when the Washington, D.C., football team continues to use a racial slur as its name despite the outcry of many American Indian groups.
It may seem strange to be celebrating and feasting in times of national strife. But that’s the whole point.
Joe Zimmermann is a junior English and journalism major and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.