As we mark the four hundredth anniversary of our cherished Thanksgiving holiday, it is regrettable but necessary to come to its defense.
Thanksgiving is Americans’ oldest tradition, celebrated by almost every native-born citizen as well as by newcomers to this country, for whom it is a rite of passage to joining the American family. In today’s global world, the tradition extends outside the country. No matter where in the world Americans find ourselves on Thanksgiving Day, we come together to give thanks, fulfilling the prediction of Sarah Josepha Hale, the nineteenth-century magazine editor by whose singular efforts the holiday was transformed from a series of local celebrations to a shared, national one.
The felicitous custom of the holiday demands that no one is excluded. The widowed aunt, the grouchy grandpa, the co-worker with nowhere to go – all receive invitations to dinner on Thanksgiving Day. So, too, those on the margins of society are included in the celebration thanks to the generosity of individuals, religious organizations, and philanthropies that make sure that the less fortunate among us have an opportunity to mark the day. Everyone has a place at the nation’s Thanksgiving table. Nor does it matter how you give thanks. President George Washington set the example in his Thanksgiving proclamations, when he urged that Thanksgiving be open to people of all faiths.
If this is the Thanksgiving story you know and put into practice on the fourth Thursday of every November, increasingly loud voices are telling you to think again. In the few short years since this book was first published, Thanksgiving has come under unprecedented assault from progressives who want to expunge it from American life. In our woke era, it has become fashionable to attack Thanksgiving on the grounds of cultural and environmental exploitation. Gratitude and God go unmentioned.
Given the recent attacks on Washington, Lincoln, and other heroes of American history, it was only a matter of time before cancel culture came for Thanksgiving. That moment arrived on Thanksgiving Day 2020, when vandals went on a crime spree in several cities under the guise of advancing Native American rights. They smashed storefronts and defaced statues with slogans such as “no thanks,” “no more genocide,” “decolonize,” and “land back.”
Another slogan – “Pequot Massacre” – perpetrated a slur found, incredibly, in some high-school history classrooms: that the chief precedent for our contemporary holiday was the early settlers’ practice of giving thanks for victories in skirmishes with the Indians or, as it is sometimes crudely presented, to celebrate the murder of Indians. This is a dishonest interpretation of the history of the holiday, which has grown from numerous and varied roots. Giving thanks for military victories – as Washington, John Quincy Adams, and every wartime president since Lincoln has done in Thanksgiving proclamations – is but one of the many influences on the holiday.
The truth about the relationship between Native Americans and Thanksgiving is more complicated than the holiday’s detractors would have us believe.