taking back Thanksgiving

Fist…and I’m not just talking about wishing all the stores like Walmart, Target, Best Buy, etc. stayed closed so their employees could enjoy some time off spent with their families.

I’m talking about this trend to remind everybody how shitty Americans are because we forget/ignore/marginalize Native Americans on Thanksgiving (and, incidentally, Columbus Day, but perhaps that is fodder for a separate post).

Not forgetting your past isn’t the same as trying to assuage your own sense of cultural/social guilt over something you had no connection to, no involvement with, and yourself have only read about in books.  The popular term for this is “white guilt,” because apparently only white people ever do anything shitty to any other group of human beings.

Now, before you start throwing out terms like “racist,” let me assure you that I’m pretty sure I’m not racist.  As of right now at this exact moment, I can’t think of an entire group of people that I hate just because they are some specific nationality or ethnic group.  I certainly don’t hate or engage actively in the oppression of Native Americans in any way, shape or form, so at the very least, I think we can agree that I’m not racist towards them and have that read into the record.

There’s only two things I hate in this world: People who are intolerant of other people’s cultures and the Dutch. –Nigel Powers

It’s widely known that the colonists* that came to the Massachusetts Bay area in 1620 were ill-equipped for survival.  As “Puritans,” they had been kicked out of most of the good countries of Europe due to their religious beliefs – these people were Calvinists, and not mainstream ones at that.  It has to do with Elizabetha-era religion & politics, which again, is probably best left to another post.

* Note that I do not use the PC term “settlers,” specifically because “settlers” is what people who think they’re without fault call themselves; “colonists” are people invading an already-populated area and staking claims for themselves – it’s not necessarily a pejorative term, but it has become taboo enough that we don’t use it much any more.

“Puritan” in this sense does not mean the “opposite of impure.”  There was no questioning these peoples’ loyalty to their beliefs, and, with Calvinism being the more dominant form of Protestant theology in England, these specific Puritans that came from England were part of a wider group of ostracized European Calvinists that wanted a return to the early days of Calvinism, when things were simpler and clearer.  Let’s leave it at that, and accept the understanding that, especially in England, they were not a particularly popular group of people.

These Puritans, whom we refer to as the Pilgrims, reached what they called Cape Cod late in November 1620. (Legend has that they named it such after catching a bunch of cod during a fishing expedition; I tend to believe this because, after all, they WERE on a boat and why be on a boat unless you’re fishing?)  They were ill-suited and ill-prepared for a Massachusetts winter, but the local tribe of what Europeans called Indians & what we now call American Indians or Native Americans (which is a misnomer – their people are no more native to this continent than are white people – they just got here long before the white people did) helped them survive that first, typical Massachusetts winter.  It is perfectly rational and correct to say that without the Wampanoag Indians, the Pilgrims would have been nothing more than a brief object lesson in a book about failed colonization attempts.

OK, so, after the Pilgrims got themselves on a more sustainable footing, they celebrated survival by having a big dinner party (or so the legend goes) after their first big harvest in 1621 and inviting the Wampanoag to the table to share in the bounty.  I’m assuming they played football in the town square after dinner, because that tradition had to start somewhere.

As we all know, the leaders of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, in subsequent years, proceeded to pit the Indian tribes of New England against each other and, indeed, killed many of the natives themselves.  In fact, I think we can all agree that what the European colonists and later United States population did to the American Indians should be classified as genocide.  Some of it was unintentional, such as the initial introduction of influenza and other virulent diseases that happened with the first contact events of the 15th century.  Much of it, however, was wholly and clearly purposeful, with Indian tribes being forced out of their ancestral homelands and massacred by the tens, of not hundreds of thousands.

However.

If that is where you stop thinking about the legends of Thanksgiving, then you are selling yourself – and the United States – short in many important ways.

Sidebar:  You may or may not know this, but the co-opting of one holiday or festival for some other purpose has a long, storied history in the western tradition. It was one of many tools used by the early Roman Catholic Church to entice barbarians (i.e. Celts & Germans) to convert to Catholicism.  For instance, it’s clear, historical fact that Jesus was not born on 25 December, yet that is the day Christians celebrate his birth.  The reason that happens now is because one of the early popes (Pope Gregory I, or Gregory the Great) was a big fan of turning pagan festivals into holy days for saints & martyrs. One of the many legends about the establishment of Christmas involves Gregory overlaying the celebration of Jesus’ birth with the pagan festivals begging for warmth to return to the earth, which center around the winter solstice.  The point of this is simple: Everybody knows Joseph & Mary, Jesus’ parents, were in Bethlehem because the Roman emperor, Caesar Augustus, had ordered every Roman subject to return to the city of his birth to register for the census and pay his taxes.  Joseph was born in Bethlehem, so that’s where they went.  Jesus was actually born on 15 April, which as we all know is the day people pay their taxes, but it’s inconvenient to celebrate Christmas in mid-April, because everybody is stressed about paying their taxes and, after all, it’s spring and we’re kind of committed at this point to Christmas being a winter holiday… at least in the northern hemisphere. I don’t know what the hell Australians are doing, having Christmas in the middle of summer like that.

On 3 October 1863, President Abraham Lincoln issued what is known as his “Thanksgiving Proclamation.”  (It was actually written by Secretary of State William Seward, the same guy responsible for us buying Alaska from Russia.) In this proclamation, Lincoln ordered that government institutions close so Americans could celebrate a “day of thanksgiving and praise” on the last Thursday in November.

With this in mind, then, and remembering that Lincoln’s highest priority was the restoration of the United States, Lincoln’s establishment of Thanksgiving as a holiday can clearly be seen as an expropriation of an American legend as a way to promote togetherness and healing in a nation that was being ravaged and torn apart by civil war.

I’m not saying you should forget the terrible things that white people did to the American Indians.  I am saying that maybe, in the Thanksgiving spirit of togetherness, peace and understanding, you could focus on something other than death & destruction when you celebrate what is a genuine, uniquely American holiday.

Happy Thanksgiving.

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