50.50: Opinion

On Thanksgiving’s 400th anniversary, we must change the way we celebrate

In a period of rising nationalism, teaching American schoolchildren to play parts in an imperialist and whitewashed pageantry is deeply troubling

Chrissy Stroop
Chrissy Stroop
25 November 2021, 1.19pm
‘The First Thanksgiving 1621’ by US artist Jean Leon Gerome Ferris (1863–1930)
Universal Art Archive / Alamy Stock Photo

Today, the United States officially marks Thanksgiving. This holiday with vague roots in centuries-old European harvest festivals has had peculiarly American – and highly problematic – iconography and mythology constructed around it since the mid-19th century. In its modern incarnation, Thanksgiving is also inescapably associated with capitalism.

In 1939, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt changed the date of the celebration from the last Thursday in November (a precedent established when President Abraham Lincoln first made Thanksgiving a national holiday in 1863), to the second-to-last Thursday in the month.

Interestingly enough, even Roosevelt, whose economic policies were more progressive than those of any other US president, justified the decision in terms of creating a longer Christmas shopping season for the benefit of retailers. In 1942, the holiday was officially set where it remains now: in the fourth week of November, regardless of whether the month contains four or five Thursdays.

The association of Thanksgiving with Christmas shopping stuck, however. ‘Black Friday’ – a term for the day after Thanksgiving, which has been a widespread retail bonanza since the late 1980s – has become rightfully infamous in recent years, with Americans getting into brawls, pepper spraying and shooting each other.

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People have even been trampled to death as shoppers rush stores (some of which now open at midnight on Thanksgiving), and compete to get the best deals and most sought-after items before they’re gone. A website dedicated to tracking Black Friday casualties, blackfridaydeathcount.com, places the current total since 2006 at 14 deaths and 117 injuries.

The Monday after Thanksgiving was declared ‘Cyber Monday’ in 2005, in an effort to encourage online shopping, which certainly entails less risk of violence but is no less celebratory of capitalism. Since 2012, Cyber Monday has been followed by ‘Giving Tuesday’, a call for generosity that some might see as mitigating the consumerist frenzy surrounding the period between Thanksgiving and Christmas. However, it neither negates the season’s rabid consumerism nor reckons with the colonialist nature of the Thanksgiving holiday itself.

‘Pilgrims’ and ‘Indians’

Just before they shut down for Thanksgiving, many American elementary schools engage in an act of wanton cultural appropriation and historical revisionism, in which children dress up as ‘Pilgrims’ and ‘Indians’ to ‘re-enact’ a mythologised and whitewashed version of the so-called ‘First Thanksgiving’. This was a festival of thanks held at the Plymouth Colony (in what is today south-eastern Massachusetts) in 1621, celebrating the colony’s first harvest.

American children are taught that this particular group of English Puritans – who supposedly came to the New World for the noble purpose of ‘religious freedom’, which is another way to say ‘implementation of their own theocracy’, and would obviously never have done something so draconian as, oh, I don’t know, banning Christmas – invited a group of Wampanoag Native Americans to share in the festivities.

In fact, some Indigenous people did spontaneously show up and were invited to stay, but this story about the Pilgrims/Puritans leaves out the more gruesome details. Such as how the Puritans robbed Wampanoag graves and committed devastating genocides of Native Americans, as British and other European settlers spread across the North American continent, bringing violence and diseases such as smallpox, to which Native Americans had no immunity.

We are struggling to find ethical ways of reckoning with our histories of imperialism, colonialism, genocide and slavery

Schoolchildren playing roles in an imperialist pageantry may not seem like the most pressing issue of our day, but the symbolism (and early childhood socialisation) is significant. We live in a time when some Americans, along with citizens of other countries with imperial histories, such as the UK and some Commonwealth nations, are struggling to find ethical ways of reckoning with our histories of imperialism, colonialism, genocide and slavery.

Meanwhile, reactionary forces are mobilising to maintain their symbols, heroes and revisionist history in the face of decolonisation efforts. A bronze bust of British imperialist Cecil Rhodes was decapitated in Cape Town, South Africa in July 2020. The UK has been coming to terms with the fallout of recent revelations that descendants of slaveholders were still receiving debt repayment as ‘compensation’ for their lost ‘property’ in the 21st century.

And in the US, often in the aftermath of horrific racist violence, we’ve seen Confederate flags and monuments to Confederate leaders come down, as well as organised efforts to keep them in place. An infamous example is the white supremacist Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August 2017. Angry white men carried tiki torches while shouting, “Jews will not replace us”, and one of the white supremacist agitators murdered anti-racist protester Heather Heyer.

Indigenous People’s Day

Efforts to replace a national holiday that honours the brutal coloniser Christopher Columbus with Indigenous People’s Day have been making headway. Parallel attempts to decolonise Thanksgiving have not gained the same traction, but they are certainly happening.

There is nothing wrong with the cultivation of gratitude, unless, of course, it is weaponised by the powerful to make those with less power feel beholden to them. (Though, these days, Thanksgiving seems to be much more about cultivating devotion to capitalist consumerism.) And while I don’t want to begrudge anyone some time off with family and/or friends, or the enjoyment of a holiday feast or even watching American football (well, OK, maybe a little), the way we celebrate Thanksgiving must change.

In a period of rising nationalism and political reaction – one in which right-wing Americans are pushing through state bans on teaching the truth about racism in the past and present of the US – Americans have a responsibility to reflect on the ugly realities behind our Thanksgiving myth, and to do better by our children than perpetuating the same old coloniser lies that we grew up with.

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