Timeless, but Invented

Thanksgiving is a holiday that brings us together, something we celebrate each year in Lawrenceville with our annual interfaith service. This year our gathering was held at the Islamic Circle of Mercer County, and it was a wonderful chance for people of many faiths and backgrounds to celebrate American values.

But what are those values we celebrate on Thanksgiving? The story that we commemorate is that of the Pilgrims and American Indians joining together for a meal of thanks and unity. Its a holiday that Jews can get behind because it makes scant reference to Christianity or other religious traditions.

The funny thing about holidays and their customs is that they feel timeless, yet they were all invented at one point. Thanksgiving was created specifically to bind the country together. It was championed by a woman named Sarah Hale, the editor of Godey’s Lady’s Book and Magazine, who in the 19th century wanted a holiday that celebrated hearth and home, the domestic sphere of food and family.

Thanksgiving was also designed to reinforce the Protestant heritage of America at a time of intense immigration of Jews and Catholics from Europe, who may not have shared the same values as native born citizens. The brilliance of the holiday is that it could be embraced by the newcomers who might add a lasagna or latkes to the meal, but were willing to adopt the ethos of Thanksgiving.

Of course, the Protestants were once newcomers to this land too, which makes the history of Thanksgiving problematic. That first gathering in 1621 was not, in fact, a celebration of giving thanks. The Puritans actually gave thanks through fasting and prayer. Instead, on that fall day when the Wampanoag tribe came to visit, the two groups were celebrating a mutual self-defense pact, which would soon be broken as the European settlers eventually killed or drove out the native population of New England.

How can we be honest about our history as a nation and still celebrate Thanksgiving? Perhaps we should do away with the kids’ pageants full of tall pilgrim hats and Indian headdresses. Instead we can tell the complicated story of our nation’s founding, and connect students to the living Native American community, including the Wampanoag tribe, which is still around today.

After all, Thanksgiving has been reinvented often over the years, each time to fill a need. There was the Macys Thanksgiving Day Parade, a celebration of American commerce, and the introduction of football into the traditionally feminine holiday. Who knows what Thanksgiving will look like in a hundred years. It will be different, but no doubt relevant to the needs of times.

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