*This essay is based on the book, “The First Thanksgiving,” by Robert Tracy McKenzie*
It is November, and Thanksgiving Day is just around the corner. Millions of Americans will celebrate the iconic holiday by gathering around tables and giving thanks. It’s tradition at its finest.
But tradition can be deceiving.
Most of us have heard the story of the Pilgrims. Their courageous escape from religious oppression in Europe set the standard for American ideals of religious devotion and individualism. Through hard work and toughness, they were able to survive the brutality of the wilderness and emerge with Thanksgiving. Even if you have never officially heard the stories behind it, the modern holiday is seeped with homage to these ideas. Thanksgiving still represents a time for thankfulness of God’s providence, both personally and institutionally.
Now, giving thanks is not bad in itself; it just lacks nuance.
History is full of nuance, and the story of Thanksgiving is no different. In reality, we know very little about the first Thanksgiving. It certainly did not happen how contemporary art has depicted it. The pilgrims were poor; they faced decimation in the winter only to struggle to cultivate the land in the summer. Any meal they would have consumed would have been simple and consumed on the ground without the luxuries of silverware or any fancy dinnerware. On top of all that, we only have a note of 115 words in length describing any kind of celebration in 1621, the year the first Thanksgiving would have occurred. This list could go on. The Pilgrims were a complicated and obscure group that existed outside their historical box the modern holiday has put around them.
What we know about the Pilgrims was largely a construct of a growing country looking for a unifying message. Most Thanksgiving stories appeared after the Civil War and gained popularity for the holiday’s usefulness in reinvigorating the American conscience. Instead of the Pilgrims themselves establishing key American ideals, Americans interpreted those ideals onto the Pilgrims. Folklore of God’s providence was hyperbolized to legitimize the United States as God’s chosen nation, all while the Pilgrim’s inconvenient flaws were hidden away.
None of this is to say that Thanksgiving is a false holiday. By all means, continue to celebrate Thanksgiving. But do it with nuance. More than people realize, Thanksgiving is a holiday of civil religion. It connects providence with American virtue, teaching that God had chosen the Pilgrims to plant the seeds of a nation. It falsely justifies American religious consumerism by comparing it to the strict Calvinism of the Pilgrims. And most importantly, it whitewashes the complex interactions between European settlers and the Natives.
Obviously, all of these things are problematic. Providence, by definition, is outside of human control, including nations like the United States. God was with the suffering just as much as he was in the blessings, and neither was a divine sign of favoritism (or lack thereof). Even their identity as Christians did not change the Pilgrim’s destiny, nor does it change ours.
This Thanksgiving, keep an eye out for these notions of providence. Find ways to give thanks and celebrate in ways that embrace the nuance of our heritage, because Thanksgiving is worth reinventing.