Why some Americans don’t celebrate Thanksgiving

The holiday is viewed by some to be a celebration of the conquest of Native Americans

Chelsea Ritschel
New York
Thursday 23 November 2023 14:56 GMT
What is Thanksgiving?

For many Americans, Thanksgiving is a special, beloved holiday for eating turkey – or a vegetarian main course option – and spending time with friends and family.

However, for others, the celebration is deeply controversial, as Thanksgiving has a contentious history that goes back to when the first feast was held.

In addition to a holiday steeped with cultural appropriation, the period of history in America is frequently white-washed, which leads some Americans to ignore, or condemn, the holiday.

Thanksgiving is considered by some to be a “national day of mourning”

Like Columbus Day, the holiday is viewed by many to be a celebration of the conquest of Native Americans by colonists, or an embellished narrative of “Pilgrims and Natives looking past their differences” to break bread.

Professor Robert Jensen, of the University of Texas at Austin, previously suggested in an op-ed that Americans replace the holiday with a “National Day of Atonement accompanied by a self-reflective collective fasting”.

“One indication of moral progress in the United States would be the replacement of Thanksgiving Day and its self-indulgent family feasting with a National Day of Atonement accompanied by a self-reflective collective fasting,” he wrote.

Americans are frequently guilty of cultural appropriation in their celebrations

One of the many issues with the holiday is its depiction in schools, with young children often taught about Thanksgiving through crafts and drawings. However, in addition to depictions of turkeys, the Mayflower and the Pilgrims, many children decorate Native American headdresses, which frequently bare no resemblance to the headdresses, clothes and feathers worn by the Wampanoag tribe, the tribe that encountered the Pilgrims.

These inaccurate historical references have been perpetuated year after year, making the battle for equality and accurate representation an ongoing one for Native Americans in America.

People disagree about when the first Thanksgiving happened

Most Americans think the three-day celebration between the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag tribe in 1621 in Plymouth, Massachusetts, was the first Thanksgiving. The Pilgrims and their Native American neighbours had signed a mutual protection treaty the spring before and the feast was in honour of a successful first harvest.

But from the Pilgrims’ point of view, the first Thanksgiving – meant to be a day set aside for prayer and worship – took place in July 1623. Governor William Bradford declared a day of Thanksgiving to give thanks for the rain that had ended a drought and saved their harvest.

Others insist the first Thanksgiving took place a few years before in 1619 in Virginia.

In 1962, a Virginia state senator disputed President John F Kennedy’s assertion that Plymouth was the site of the First Thanksgiving.

“America’s First Thanksgiving was actually celebrated in Virginia in 1619,” the senator told the president in a letter, referring to a religious ceremony that English settlers held when they arrived in Berkeley Plantation near Richmond. “Please issue an appropriate correction.”

“You are quite right,” came the reply from Mr Kennedy’s special assistant, the historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. “I can only plead unconquerable New England bias on the part of the White House staff.”

Not everyone liked the idea of a national Thanksgiving holiday

In 1789, President George Washington proclaimed a National Day of Thanksgiving, asking Americans to gather on the last Thursday of November to give thanks for the establishment of “a form of government for their safety and happiness”.

But some members of Congress objected, asserting that the authority to designate a day of thanks belonged to individual state governors, not the president.

Others argued that Thanksgiving was a “religious matter”. Therefore, the government’s establishment of a national thanksgiving was forbidden by the First Amendment.

Washington proclaimed a second day of Thanksgiving in 1795, and presidents John Adams, James Madison and others did the same in subsequent years. But many presidents, particularly Thomas Jefferson, opposed this.

It was not until 1863 that President Abraham Lincoln established the regular tradition of observing days of national Thanksgiving.

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