The case for decoupling the Thanksgiving holiday from US history altogether
A day for giving thanks and celebrating gratitude doesn't require an origin story.
As families across the U.S. start prepping for family gatherings and feasts of turkey and mashed potatoes, people are engaging in the usual debates over the origins of Thanksgiving. Kids in American schools are learning various versions of the Pilgrims in Plymouth story, most of which are overly simplistic and many of which are flat-out wrong. People in Native communities are experiencing the familiar whitewashing of their side of that story, and people of goodwill are feeling torn about how—or whether—to celebrate Thanksgiving in light of the problematic history that has been ascribed to it.
Considering the whole, long evolution of the holiday, here's an idea: Let's officially decouple Thanksgiving from U.S. history entirely and make it a holiday that celebrates gratitude for gratitude's sake and nothing more.
To be clear, I'm not suggesting we "erase history" here. I'm simply suggesting we stop associating this holiday with any specific historic eras or events and distill it down to its pure essence. Despite the elementary school dramatizations seared into our collective psyches, there is barely a shred of a thread actually linking the Pilgrim origin story for our modern Thanksgiving holiday. Not only do we have the problematic mythology surrounding that "First Thanksgiving" event, but the entire idea that the Pilgrims are why we celebrate Thanksgiving as a holiday today is totally untrue.
According to Britannica, there was evidence of a meal shared between the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag people, but that didn't lead to some big, widespread holidays of thanksgiving, and the "thanksgiving" celebrations that were held early in American history were not associated with the Pilgrims.
"For the Pilgrims, giving thanks for the autumn harvest wasn’t a new concept," shares Britannica. "As a tradition with roots in European harvest festivals and Christian religious observances, 'days of thanksgiving' were fairly common among the colonists of New England. Throughout America’s colonial era, communities held their own unofficial Thanksgiving celebrations, and few people associated them with the Plymouth settlers."
In fact, the more direct link from U.S. history to our current Thanksgiving holiday came more than 250 years after the Mayflower landing. In 1863, just a few months after delivering his Gettysburg Address, President Abraham Lincoln declared a Thanksgiving holiday proclamation, which reads:
"I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, …to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving... And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him …, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to his tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility and Union."
That proclamation is seen as the beginning of the national holiday, according to the National Parks Service, and largely thanks to the 36-year effort of a woman named Sarah Hale. As editor of Boston's Ladies' Magazine, Hale had publicly called for a national Thanksgiving holiday and she wrote to President Lincoln directly pushing for the holiday just a few weeks before he made the proclamation.
Notably absent from Lincoln's proclamation? Any mention of the Pilgrims and Native Americans. According to research shared in The New Yorker, it was the late 19th and early 20th century panic over immigration that led to the mythology of the Pilgrim-oriented origins of Thanksgiving—nearly 300 years after the fact.
However, I maintain that the history of Thanksgiving, at least in terms of how and why we celebrated it, isn't important. The Thanksgiving holiday doesn't need an origin story, problematic or otherwise. Giving thanks, especially during a harvest season, has been a standard tradition in cultures around the world for millennia—it's a worthy holiday all on its own. Gratitude is a value we all share and there's no reason why we have to tie it to any particular historical era or event.
Gratitude is also good for us. Many studies have shown that people who regularly practice gratitude tend to be happier and less depressed. According to Harvard Medical School, gratitude "helps people feel more positive emotions, relish good experiences, improve their health, deal with adversity, and build strong relationships."
So let's place our focus of this holiday on the beauty of gratitude and on how giving thanks can make us better humans. Let's collectively agree to end ridiculous Thanksgiving school plays and make the holiday curriculum about why gratitude is good for us. Let's focus on teaching accurate history all the time instead of watering down or misrepresenting complex historic events to explain to young children why we celebrate certain holidays.
Let's give thanks for our loved ones and the yummy food we're about to consume and officially make the holiday as lovely and simple and universal as that.