Thanks or Mourning?
Many Americans remember childhood Thanksgiving pageants, recounting how English Pilgrims and Native Americans made friends at Plymouth Rock, complete with feathered headdresses and face paint.
Some of those same children spent hours watching reruns of Westerns, where the “Indians” were the bad guys, threatening the brave cowboys but inevitably failing to stop the pioneers’ “noble” cause.
We’ve since learned how far these early childhood stories are from the true history of the colonization of North America.
But they are woven into our culture.
When we’re young, we soak up subtle lessons from these stories. As we mature, though, we become more discerning than we were as kids, and we know that not all stories are true or good.
But holidays are built on stories. And it can be hard to let them go.
On Thanksgiving, one of the most central holidays on the U.S. cultural calendar, it’s hard for many of us to disentangle the mythical fable of our nation’s origin from the joys of turkey, family, and gratitude.
Can we hold both the Thanksgiving feast and the somber Day of Mourning ceremony of Indigenous Americans in our mind at the same time? Can we observe a day that is both joyful and tragic?
I find some inspiration in the (true) story of how Thanksgiving came to be nationally celebrated on a Thursday every November: as part of a desperate effort to connect people on different sides of existential conflict.
Sarah Josepha Hale was a New Hampshire writer and editor who helped found a national women’s literary magazine, fund the Bunker Hill Monument, and establish Vassar College. She had already written “Mary Had A Little Lamb,” so her permanent place in American childhood was well established.
But as she saw the nation fracturing in the years leading up to the Civil War, she believed that breaking bread with gratitude would bring communities together. So she devoted her efforts to a shared cultural feast of Thanksgiving. Shortly after the catastrophic Battle of Gettysburg, Lincoln declared just such a holiday.
So American Thanksgiving has always held the tension of finding a common story across opposing worldviews.
Let’s celebrate in the spirit of Sarah Hale. We can acknowledge the grief and tragedy of our past (and present), and gather together to appreciate our many blessings.