The Ugly Truth: Thanksgiving

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Holidays are a time when everyone loves to feel good. We do so by spending time with family, presents, music, themed apparel, and many traditions. As we come into the end of November, a majority of people in the United States tend to gather together for a meal known as Thanksgiving. 

Often paired with local parades, it can be good, bad, or just downright ugly. It may be the best time of everyone’s lives eating delicious meals, catching up with distant cousins, or it can be bad, with family drama, gossip, or for many, the ugly lines at Black Friday.

But what is Thanksgiving really about? What do we celebrate, or commemorate? For Christmas, it’s a clear outline, “The Birthday of Jesus”, however inaccurate that may be, there is a direction there. What about this November holiday known for its stuffed turkey at best? Many people would think about the history classes in school which talked about how the Pilgrims came to this continent, celebrated the harvest with a native tribe, of which most can’t recall the name, and they enjoyed the meal and gave thanks. 

But the true origins of this celebration are not so light-hearted. The reality is, the original Thanksgiving is far different than that typically observed by people in the USA today. 

Fact: In 1620, as several historical records state, Pilgrims arrived on the Mayflower and named the location of arrival “Plymouth Rock.” It’s also factual according to records that they had a ‘feast’ the following year, but it wasn’t a tradition. It wasn’t done again for years afterwards. While the native tribe was invited, it wasn’t for celebration, but rather for negotiating treaties in attempts to claim ownership of land. 

To fast forward slightly, many people today might recognize the celebration to have started with Abraham Lincoln, issuing the proclamation in 1863, as a religious holiday. You read that correctly, it was proclaimed as a federal holiday to give thanks to “our beneficent father who dwelleth in the Heavens” in his proclamation on October 3, 1863. While you may not have been aware of its religious background as it’s known in modern day, you’re less likely to have been aware of it’s less ideal, more gruesome truth. 

Unless you have an interest in origin stories and do personal research, it’s unlikely one would learn about this as it’s not taught in most schools. Definitely not high school US History, as most of that will be only the greatness of our nation, and why we should all be patriotic. 

While the dates may not happen in November, just bear with me as we go through some more facts. The Pequot War, which took place in the mid 1630s, was between the Pequot tribe, and an alliance of colonists. A key part of the war is what’s known as the “Mystic Massacre” where Colonial forces surrounded villages at Mistick. They attacked the Pequots there, and claimed it as an act of god, as hundreds were massacred, burned, shot trying to escape, or worse, died from the fumes. Afterwards, the Governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony at the time declared it “A Day of Thanksgiving, thanking God that they had eliminated over 700 men, women and children.” That began the tradition as we know it today. It also may have led to the re-invented, yet of similar basis, for Abraham Lincoln to create a federal holiday of similar monument.
Both come from killing. Specifically, the subjugation of Native Americans. If you’re interested to know more about the details regarding the interactions with the Puritans, the different tribes, the trade issues that caused conflict, there are a ton of resources available online, in the library, and perhaps for more accuracy, Native American tribe members that live in your area. 

Take time, reach out to them, go to their events, ask them questions about their ancestors and heritage. Don’t blindly accept the happy, feel-good, commercialized, holiday, stuffed with dark history, and manipulation used by the government to further nationalistic agendas. 

Truth is, thanksgiving was started out of a false sense of religious and racial superiority where one group felt that they were serving the one true god, and that other human beings who felt differently didn’t deserve to have the same opportunities. It’s not pretty. It also doesn’t get any better when Abraham Lincoln re-branded and re-packaged it like an upgraded iPhone, and claimed to give thanks for a different reason, yet citing a religious reason.
People may feel that the history of where a celebration comes from doesn’t matter. But, it does a great disservice to history itself if we become desensitized. It’s our job as the writers of history for future generations to remind everyone to research, to question, and to never simply accept things, just because it’s tradition. It’s up to us, those with the ability, to tell the truth and to honor the lives lost by no longer hiding the dark past. We must shine a light, and share the truth with the world.
It doesn’t mean you can’t be thankful. You can be thankful any day of the year, and it definitely makes it easier to get together when it’s a federal holiday. But let’s not pretend where it comes from, and let’s do our best to never forget, and to continue to educate the future about the origins of our traditions. This is just a little bit of the ugly truth about thanksgiving, and we don’t even need to bring in corporate greed to know it’s dark. Stay tuned for more ugly truths.