An odd thing about Thanksgiving – those arguments family members have over the dinner table and around the TV, while eating too much food and watching the football game, are actually one of the few truly authentic Thanksgiving Day traditions. Allow me to explain…
In 2014 I posted a quote from the book Thank You Sarah, written by Laurie Halse Anderson and illustrated by Matt Faulkner. It was one of many books I’d checked out of the local library and brought home as potential bedtime-story-reading-material for my child. It was just an illustrated history of the founding of Thanksgiving, but the details were both eye opening and surprising (to me, at least). The most important details were these:
- Thanksgiving was created with the express purpose of setting aside one day a year where families and community members could put aside their differences and share a meal, in the hopes that the community-based connection would heal the wounds of the civil war.
- The Thanksgiving myth that is retold every year, is actually a story that Sarah Hale used to convince people to both participate in the holiday and to behave civilly while doing so. The objective was to bring (white) people together and repair relationships after the civil war, which pitted family members against one another in battle – imagine the dinner table after your cousins come back from a war where they, literally, tried to kill one another (or where one succeeded in killing the other). The myth was basically a parable told in the context of ‘if the tribes can behave civilly when in the company of their enemies then, surely, we white folk can do better.’
Put another way, the Thanksgiving myth is blatantly racist story that uses a fictitious (or grossly exaggerated) story about a community the US government was actively committing genocide against (before, during, and after the civil war) as a form of mass emotional blackmail. When the objective is reparations, even highly specific reparations (like veterans of the civil war and their families), that isn’t the best tactic. Unfortunately, over time, the myth stuck and the emphasis on reparations was lost.
Quick aside – Here are some historic resources about the history behind Thanksgiving:
- How the ‘Mother of Thanksgiving’ Lobbied Abraham Lincoln to Proclaim the National Holiday | HISTORY
- Lincoln and Thanksgiving – Lincoln Home National Historic Site (U.S. National Park Service) (nps.gov)
- Thanksgiving Proclamation by Abraham Lincoln (abrahamlincolnonline.org) — This is the most telling resource as the official proclamation for the holiday makes it very clear that the focus is on recovering from the Civil War.
- Godmother_of_Thanksgiving.pdf (pilgrimhall.org) — This provides quotes from Sara Hales letters, where she is focused on healing the divisions caused by the civil war.
- ‘Thanks’ To The Woman Who Helped Make A November Thursday Special : NPR — “Hale got her wish 150 years ago. Lincoln proclaimed that Americans should observe the last Thursday of November 1863, as a day to heal the wounds of a nation.” (Emphasis mine)
As a day to heal the wounds of a nation…
Since learning about the historically accurate reasons for our annual Thanksgiving celebration, those reasons have been quietly nagging at me. We’ve, quite literally, had an official day of reparations in our federal calendar since 1863, and somehow that purpose got lost in a collective hyper fixation on a racist myth and excessive eating.
The idea of Thanksgiving returning to its roots as a day focused on making amends, both personally and nationally, is something worth discussing. Given that focus, what should the holiday look like? What should communities, families and individuals do to celebrate?
I don’t have an answer, I just wish the questions were being asked and answered, sincerely and thoughtfully, throughout the month of November.
My Thanksgiving Tree
What does all of this have to do with my Thanksgiving tree?
Since the holiday is not used for its intended purposes, I decided to play with those themes in my Thanksgiving Tree. Sadly, I am only marginally successful. Honestly, I look at the current in-progress collection of ornaments and I worry that it comes across as a cringy left-leaning white-culture holiday tree.
By way of explanation, here is my list of topics for the ornaments (in no particular order): a) strong women, b) peace, peace symbols, c) the planet, environmentalism, d) family, community, e) nostalgia (things from my childhood that I associate with Thanksgiving, like Snoopy, woodland creatures, etc.), and f) reparations that should be addressed during this holiday.
Obviously, this is less a form of activism and more akin to a vision board in the form of a Christmas Tree.
It’s a way to contemplate the topic and maybe even begin conversations.
It’s something small and tangible I have started doing in recognition of what should be happening during this holiday.
It’s something. Not enough, but something.