Historical essay
The Paradox of Thanksgiving

The Paradox of Thanksgiving

With its odd combination of tradition and invention, its appeals to the past and to the future, its ancestor worship and its acceptance of diversity, Thanksgiving is not merely America’s most treasured celebration but its most paradoxical.

But at a moment when we are increasingly confronting the United States’ less-than-perfect history and challenging sacred myths, should we be taking a harder look at American Thanksgiving? The holiday has been a focus of autumn grade school curriculum for a hundred years. Can it — should it — remain so in our multicultural age?

Celebrating Colonialism?

Thanksgiving has faced challenges, focused especially on its early history. The patron saints of the day — the famous Pilgrims — were the ones who in 1620 colonized Plymouth in New England, the ancient homeland of a Native people, who would be displaced by migrating multitudes of Europeans and white Americans.

Some Native activists have used the occasion of Thanksgiving to voice their protests. Such demonstrations are not without merit, given that the later Puritan colonists did, on at least one occasion, observe a Thanksgiving to commemorate their military victory over Indians foes — a triumph in 1637 that is now best characterized as a massacre.

However, the Plymouth colonists — the Pilgrims, the inventors of Thanksgiving — were not actually involved in that travesty, and most subsequent New England Thanksgivings were harvest festivals celebrating peace and plenty not war and devastation.

As a historian of colonial America and scholar of America public holidays, I’ve long worked to separate history from myth and fact from fiction, and to help tell the stories of diverse Americans.

Thanksgiving might be that rare historical event in which the history measures up to the legend. In fact, the First Thanksgiving was less about colonialism than it was about acceptance, cooperation, gratitude, and generosity. The three-day feast of 1621 included more Indians than Pilgrims, and the event served as a means to affirm a mutual commitment to peace and coexistence.

This 1932 painting of "The first Thanksgiving 1621," by J.L.G. Ferris, shows many of the more common misconceptions of the 1621 feast. (Library of Congress)
This 1932 painting of “The first Thanksgiving 1621,” by J.L.G. Ferris, shows many of the more common misconceptions of the 1621 feast. (Library of Congress)

Thanksgiving, then, is not the best symbol for America’s dark history of colonialism and dispossession — much less apt than, say, the now-obscure Landing Day or Forefathers Day, which male New England societies celebrated in the nineteenth century to mark their ancestors’ landing on Plymouth Rock in December 1620.

Or Columbus Day, which hailed a hero more easily construed as a conquistador.

John Vanderlyn's "Landing of Columbus" (1846) presents a traditionally heroic -- and largely inaccurate -- image of Columbus' landing in the Americas. (John Vanderlyn/Wikimedia | Public domain)
John Vanderlyn’s “Landing of Columbus” (1846) presents a traditionally heroic — and largely inaccurate — image of Columbus’ landing in the Americas. (John Vanderlyn/Wikimedia | Public domain)

Becoming American

Throughout its history, from its very roots, Thanksgiving has remained a multicultural affair. If Forefathers Day celebrated an exclusive lineage of white, Anglo-Saxon Protestants who descended from the Mayflower, Thanksgiving instead represented America as a melting pot.

Waves of immigrants — who could easily see themselves as pilgrims fleeing Old World affliction and embracing New World freedom and opportunities — adopted and adapted Thanksgiving to affirm their Americanness.

Officials in New York City provided turkey dinners for immigrants at Ellis Island, and the public school system used the Pilgrims and their feast as a model for teaching Americanism to newcomers.

Although this “assimilationist” curriculum could be heavy-handed, Thanksgiving was amenable to the immigrants’ hyphenated status (Irish-American, Italian-American, Chinese-American, and so forth) and did not necessarily require that they denounce their ethnic or religious heritage in order to become fully American.

We can see this Americanizing process in a short story by Pearl Kazin, “We Gather Together,” that appeared originally in The New Yorker magazine in 1955. The narrator is a second-generation Jewish schoolgirl at Brooklyn’s PS 125, who reflects on the intense lessons that dominate the school days beginning in October about Thanksgiving and Pilgrims.

Although they seem exotic, she is fascinated, and hopes for a Thanksgiving feast of her own. But her immigrant mother is skeptical and uncooperative. “Why can’t we have turkey for Thanksgiving like everybody else?” the girl asks.

[gblockquote]“Who’s everybody?” My mother would say, without taking her eyes from the sewing machine. “The Feins eat turkey Thanksgiving? Doris Levine’s mother goes on the subway to buy a turkey God knows where Thanksgiving”’ … “We don’t have enough our own holidays for you? Eh, who knows even where to buy a turkey, how much it costs … . Headaches she has to give me with her turkey yet.”[/gblockquote]

The girl is only able to dream of a grand Thanksgiving with a turkey on the table and her entire extended family gathered around. But if this schoolgirl was disappointed, subsequent Jewish-American families and other newcomers would not be, as they celebrated “traditional” Thanksgivings that fused diverse ethnic or religious rituals with American ones and accessorized their centerpiece turkeys with imported new foods from distant homelands — rice and beans, plantains, arroz con dulce, stuffed derma, and other treats.

Chef Floyd Cardoz's samosas stuffed with potato and peas. (Michele Kayal/NPR)
Chef Floyd Cardoz’s samosas stuffed with potato and peas. (Michele Kayal/NPR)

Elizabeth Stern, another early twentieth-century Jewish immigrant from Russia, remembered in her 1917 memoir (My Mother and I), how her family began to celebrate Thanksgiving.

As the day approached her father brought home a turkey — not the traditional fowl of the Jews — which her mother assessed with interest as bigger than a duck or chicken! They put out a white tablecloth, “as if it were a holy day,” and recited tales from the Talmud.

Afterward, Elizabeth explained the meaning of Thanksgiving, which she had learned in school, while her approving mother cautioned, “one must not give thanks only on one day and for one bird!”

Thanksgiving has long been an invitation to become an American, a method of do-it-yourself Americanization.

The fictional Nathan Zuckerman, Philip Roth’s Jewish-American narrator in his Pulitzer Prize winning novel, American Pastoral (1997), explained the day as a grand national, pluralistic, inclusive act that brought people together “on the neutral, dereligionized ground of Thanksgiving, when everybody gets to eat the same thing, nobody sneaking off to eat funny stuff — no kugel, no gefilte fish, no bitter herbs, just one colossal turkey for two hundred and fifty million people — one colossal turkey feeds all.”

Zuckerman here celebrated the daylong “moratorium on funny foods and funny ways and religious exclusivity” and hailed the occasion when “everyone in New Jersey and elsewhere can be more passive about their irrationalities than they are the rest of the year,” when Americans suspended “all the grievances and resentments” and set a freeze in place “for everyone in America who is suspicious of everyone else. It is the American pastoral par excellence.”

At a moment when the country seems particularly divided and the world seems more dangerous, Zuckerman’s pronouncements about unity, generosity, and faith in each other might provide some hope. I believe they accurately reflect Thanksgiving’s dynamic history, from 1621 to the present.

For a public holiday, Thanksgiving is essentially private. Its public face is often a parade that’s really about Christmas — traditionally the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York City opens the holiday shopping season, with Santa Claus riding the final float.

But the heart of the festival is in the home. Though the holiday celebrates Pilgrim Patriarchs, the domestic feast is gendered female, with mothers and grandmothers presiding. Often religious but not particularly sectarian, Thanksgiving does not exclude non-Christians or even non-believers.

Thomas Nast, "Uncle Sam’s Thanksgiving Dinner," Harper's Weekly, November 20, 1869 (Library of Congress)
Thomas Nast, “Uncle Sam’s Thanksgiving Dinner,” Harper’s Weekly, November 20, 1869 (Library of Congress)

Instead, it partakes in the universalism of thanksgiving rituals that cross boundaries of culture, religion, race, and ethnicity. For a national holiday, Thanksgiving is distinctively localized and variable.

Americans collectively shape the meaning of the occasion — and the meaning of America itself as a plural nation — and they declare their national identity simply by gathering privately and eating turkey.

Though inwardly focused, not commercialized, and not a gift-giving event, Thanksgiving is the time when Americans in the largest numbers reach out to the least fortunate in their communities, through voluntary action and charitable contributions.

The holiday is a great American paradox, and its apparent contradictions have been critical to its enduring appeal, success, and value. And, yes, it continues to offer appropriate lessons for America’s schoolchildren.

This post originally appeared over at The Conversation, and has been republished here with permission.

Featured image caption: “Thanksgiving turkey,” ca. 1910 and ca. 1915. (Bain News Service/Library of Congress | Public domain)

Matthew Dennis is Professor of History and Environmental Studies at the University of Oregon. His books include Cultivating a Landscape of Peace: Iroquois-European Encounters in 17th-Century America (1993); Red, White, and Blue Letter Days: An American Calendar (2002); Riot and Revelry in Early America (co-editor, 2002); Encyclopedia of Holidays and Celebrations, 3 vols. (editor, 2006); and Seneca Possessed: Indians, Witchcraft, and Power in the Early American Republic (2010). His essays, both popular and scholarly, have assayed a range of subjects, as material as Plymouth Rock and as ephemeral as dreams and visions, as celebratory as American holidays and festivals and as dire as death and mortal remains. His current book project is American Relics and the Politics of Public Memory. In 2015-16, he is Visiting Fellow at the Bard Graduate Center: Decorative Arts, Design History Material Culture, in New York City.

1 thought on “The Paradox of Thanksgiving

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      One can always surprise people, and especially students, by pointing out that Christmas was banned in several states. Or that there was a political quarrel about the dating of Thanksgiving. Etc.

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