Thinking about Thanksgiving

We should rethink the meaning of Thanksgiving by separating myth from reality

By Emily Wang

In the past few days, I’ve come to the realization that the dreaded Freshman 15 doesn’t come from the dining hall, but at home, where Mom and Dad and Grandma and Aunt Sally fret over how skinny you’ve gotten. In response, we joke (although for many, it’s the sad reality), “Well, I don’t have time to eat—I’m too busy crying over my problem sets!” And of course, in true mom fashion, your mother believes you and proceeds to feed you until it causes you physical pain to crawl away from the dinner table.

Thanksgiving, for every college student who has the privilege of going back home for the four-day holiday, is one continuous feast. Family and friends attempt to make up for your nine weeks of malnourishment in as little time as possible. I, for one, had three epic Thanksgivings in a row, not to mention all the leftover-ridden meals in between. But I’m not complaining, by any means; the “I’m too full!” pain is probably the best kind of pain there is. It’s a nice respite from all the times I forgot to eat in the midst of frantically writing papers and studying for midterms and then suddenly realized, at two in the morning, that I was starving.

So Thanksgiving is mostly about eating, eating…and more eating. But what, exactly, does Thanksgiving mean to us, as college students, as almost-adults, besides the extra pounds? The frequent case against celebrating Thanksgiving is that it’s rooted in a falsified encounter between the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag Native Americans that we continue to perpetuate generation after generation; the real story, according to those who have completely renounced the holiday, is one of the mass extermination of the Native American population through epidemics of Old World diseases. The first Thanksgiving was declared not in some joyous shared meal between Pilgrims and their Native American friends, but after the safe return of the men from the colony who had gone to participate in the massacre of 700 Pequot men, women, and children. This “celebration,” then, is a cruel reminder of the suffering of an entire indigenous population, of an entire culture, that never recovered from these supposed encounters of cultural sharing.

This is certainly a valid, and much more historically accurate, argument. Yet the holiday’s most fervent supporters contend that Thanksgiving has been redefined over time—that its origin no longer matters because we have other things in mind; namely, family, friends, and tradition. Thanksgiving is a time of heightened awareness of the loved ones in our orbits, of being thankful for our past, present, and future collective experiences. This, too, makes a lot of sense, and for most people, this justification will do. But then again, this particular impression of being part of a collective seems to give Thanksgiving an extra layer of irony: A holiday that so transparently evokes a time in our nation’s history where one group’s arrival nearly led to the extinction of the other now symbolizes community, both on a personal level and a cultural level.

If we’re not consciously celebrating the dishonest, Disney-fied conception of how the first Thanksgiving came about, should we feel guilty? The greater implications of my feasting never crossed my mind during my three Thanksgivings, but I recognize now that I have a responsibility to the Native American peoples and to myself to scrape beneath the surface of the traditions I’m buying into. At this point in our lives, we should be questioning everything, constantly trying to find the closest thing to the truth, or at least the best truth.

From the standpoint of someone who just participated, victoriously, in Chinese Thanksgiving, Indian Thanksgiving, and American Thanksgiving all in succession, I do think that the holiday break is worthwhile, even necessary. As my multicultural experience can attest to, Thanksgiving has become a holiday of cultural convergence, although it can’t be of much comfort to Native Americans to see that Thanksgiving has evolved.

If it really is about connection and not difference, though, it’s morally reprehensible to continue to teach America’s youth the fictitious Thanksgiving tale that I believed for the majority of my life. Until we separate, from the beginning, the myths from the realities, Thanksgiving will continue to have its other fundamentally unethical significance.

Thanksgiving, I must profess, is my favorite holiday. It gets better every year, especially as we get older and suddenly find ourselves adults—the bonds of friendship become tighter, family reunions grow less frequent and therefore bittersweet. Yet I know, if we confront, and ultimately change, the way we instill Thanksgiving into our national culture, it could be so much sweeter.

Emily Wang is a first-year in the College majoring in English.