Thankful for Thanksgiving

Editor’s note: This is one of several thought-provoking articles we are reposting for your holiday reading. This article was originally published Nov. 25, 2009. Your comments are welcome.

While I don’t care much about Columbus Day (except that there’s no school, which when my kids were younger was a pain in the ass…), I do like Thanksgiving. As do most people in our country, who gather every year in all kinds of different arrangements and combinations, for an overdose of the four Fs: food, family, friends, football.

I mention these two holidays because they are among the most maligned by some on the left end of the political spectrum (along with the 4th of July), because of their connection to the European colonization of the Americas.

Make no mistake, the arrival of the Europeans, for which Columbus is ostensibly celebrated in October, was disastrous for the millions of Native American people living here.

It was, indeed, genocide, both intended and unintended. In his book, “1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus,” Charles C. Mann argues that the impact of the Europeans was even more catastrophic than previously thought, and that there had existed large, thriving civilizations. He points to new archeological work that hints at how developed and widespread were the accomplishments of the people whose societies were destroyed.

I highly recommend the book — it’s a thought-provoking read.

But does anyone celebrate Thanksgiving because it symbolizes European colonial triumph? Don’t millions of Americans celebrate the holiday – simply because it’s a day to relax, (over)eat and enjoy the company of others?

And if the Thanksgiving “story” is oversimplified to the point of ridiculousness (Pilgrims are rescued by Indians, and share a meal together), doesn’t it also have things to recommend it? The paired images of collective suffering and human solidarity; the celebration of fall, the harvest, nature’s bounty; expressing appreciation for comfort and company.

This is what most people would say is the meaning of Thanksgiving (Although many of us are probably preoccupied with other questions: Pumpkin or pecan, or both? Where can I get some folding chairs? Should I go back my diet on Friday or Monday?)

Besides, Thanksgiving, like all of the other holidays celebrated in our multicultural, multiracial country, has been transformed over time, and like the country itself, has expanded and embraced new cultures and traditions. Hence the interesting ways to prepare the bird, like jerked turkey. Or that for some people, Thanksgiving isn’t complete without macaroni and cheese, for which I’m pretty sure neither Indians nor Pilgrims had the recipe.

And here’s another good thing about Thanksgiving: despite the best efforts of marketing and retail companies, it is still relatively un-commercial. You don’t have to buy anything (except the food) and you don’t have to decorate (ok, maybe some corn on the door, plus housecleaning if you’re hosting). And that’s a good thing for struggling families. Thanksgiving is an opportunity – in fact, practically an obligation – to get together and enjoy a day off. And for a lot of people, it’s a 4-day weekend.

So I say to those who only see the “glass-half-empty” of Thanksgiving and other American traditions: if we can’t point to what’s positive in our history and culture, people won’t hear us when we talk about what’s negative.

And if we can’t share the pride that working people have in those things, we won’t be effective participants in the social movements that have expanded democracy and rewritten our country’s history and traditions, and will do so going forward.