The Truth Behind Thanksgiving and Its Odd Traditions
By Ambar Ramirez
We’ve all heard the story in elementary school, probably while wearing pilgrim hats made out of construction paper. In the process of tracing our hands to make turkey decorations, the teacher would walk up to the front of the room and ask, “Do any of you know why we celebrate Thanksgiving”? To which we would all reply with a collective “nooo.” She would go on to tell the story…
It was November 1621. The Mayflower had been sailing for more than two months, under harsh conditions within and outside the ship. The group of 102 Europeans seeking a place of refuge to freely practice their religion, landed in what is now known as Plymouth, Massachusetts, where they were greeted by supposedly smiling (and fluent in English?) Native Americans. Squanto, a Patuxet tribe member, would go on to happily help the disease-ridden Mayflower passengers and teach them how to live off the land. Along with their first successful harvest, the pilgrims and Native Americans gathered a huge feast to celebrate and came to an agreement to protect each other. And they lived happily ever after.
Now every year we give thanks by throwing extravagant dinner parties, inviting all of our family members and friends, and eating so much food ’til we drop.
While the aspect of sharing thanks is a positive and (possibly) true telling of the first Thanksgiving, celebrating the holiday also silences the years of exploitation and crimes committed against Native Americans and other indigenous groups. And the lighthearted narrative traditionally taught in school does not, in the slightest, depict what actually happened back in 1621.
Prior to the Mayflower landing in Massachusetts, Europeans had been capturing and selling indigenous people to the slave trade for years. It was during these excursions that the Europeans brought about disease and violence to the native tribes. Illnesses rapidly spread through the tribes, completely wiping out most of them over three years, including the tribe of Tisquantum (or as you may know him “Squanto”). It was where Tisquantum’s village once stood that the pilgrims would establish Plymouth.
But it wasn’t Tisquantum’s idea to welcome the pilgrims with open arms, as he had just escaped the Europeans himself after being captured by slave traders six years prior. It was at the hand of the Wampanoag leader, Massasoit, who thought having the pilgrims as allies would aid the tribe against their rivals, the Narragansett tribe. Massasoit held Tisquantum prisoner and used him as a translator between the groups. After Tisquantum established himself as a key source to the pilgrims, teaching them how to plant corn and beans (and how to shower), the Wampanoag tribe and pilgrims formed a treaty that guaranteed protection on both ends.
The pilgrims then celebrated a prayerful feast with stolen harvests and gunshots. The sound of the rifles prompted the Wampanoag to prepare for battle and investigate their pilgrim neighbors, only to find them in the midst of their regular colonist celebration. Instead of prompting a war, the tribe used their prepared weapons to hunt meat that they shared with the pilgrims and held what is now known as the “First Thanksgiving” for the following three days.
The Native Americans did not willingly accept protection or allegiance just because they were friendly. It was due to years of disease, massacres, and the need for a sense of security that prompted the tribe to fearingly hand over their knowledge. And by 1637 the peace between the pilgrims and tribes would disintegrate, prompting decade-long wars. Wars that would end with most native tribes erased from history.
Unfortunately , the story of the “First Thanksgiving” isn’t even the only misconstrued aspect of the widely celebrated holiday.
The real reason why we even celebrate Thanksgiving has nothing to do with the event that took place centuries ago and is tied to what most holidays are centered around in America: business or the remembrance of some war won.
The first mention of the holiday was by George Washington in 1789 when he signed the proclamation for “a day of public thanksgiving and prayer.” In 1863 Abraham Lincoln encouraged Americans to recognize the last Thursday of November as “a day of Thanksgiving,” as a way to unite the American identity during the schism created by the Civil War. It wouldn’t be until 1870 that congress would declare Thanksgiving a national holiday, one that would be up to the president’s discretion as to when it should be celebrated.
Franklin D. Roosevelt kept Lincoln’s tradition of setting Thanksgiving on the last Thursday of November as a way to extend Christmas shopping and help businesses gain more money after the Great Depression. It was November 28, 1940 when the last Thursday of November officially became the day of Thanksgiving when Massachusetts representative Allen Treadway made a plea to Congress.
But what about the pumpkin pie and stuffed turkey that fill our tables each November? Or the breaking of the wishbone and the man of the house having to take the first cut at the turkey? Did the pilgrims and Native Americans understand each other as they went around the table and gave a list of things they were thankful for? They definitely didn’t have TVs to watch the football game on or football games at all.
The tradition of breaking wishbones actually comes from an old tradition that dates back to an ancient Italian civilization. The Etruscans would regularly practice bird divination, and it somehow found its way to becoming a modern-day Thanksgiving tradition. Men having to carve the turkey refers to an old chivalry code in which women cook the food while the men eat it. ( I like to think we’ve moved on from that outdated rule as a society.) Football games on Thanksgiving day basically started with the game’s inception in 1876, mainly because it’s a day everybody had off from work and school. Most, if not all, of these traditions are linked to something unrelated to what happened back in Plymouth in 1621. And yet, while there are 574 governmentally recognized native tribes active in the United States, it seems that Thanksgiving is the only time these groups are acknowledged.
The myths and facts of the popular holiday are enmeshed like the mashed potatoes and gravy that fill your plate. As the saying goes, ignorance is bliss but knowledge is power. With this new knowledge, I hope that during your Thanksgiving festivities you acknowledge its <true> history and put a stop to the silencing of a demographic that is very much still relevant.