Thanksgiving Day is controversial. No one should be surprised by it. I have often thought that the day points we the people to some sort of ideal community. Of course, even an ideal community is controversial. It should be. The question is, “ideal for whom?” But, the question is too vague. Some ideal views are not worth consideration.
A common meme says that political correctness is a way of saying, “Don’t be a jerk.” Others claim that political correctness is about muddying up the common sense of what is and what is not. Discrimination, we are told, is a good thing because it helps us determine “right from wrong.”
I am inclined to agree. But, must one be a jerk about it? The Thanksgiving Day story comes from a time when the native inhabitants of America were divided into two groups – good Indians and bad Indians. And we must remember Teddy Roosevelt’s claim, “I don’t go so far as to think the only good Indians are dead Indians, but I believe nine out of every ten are.” Talk about being a jerk.
Protesting Thanksgiving Day
I am not a big fan of protests even though I have participated in a few. I believe we risk misjudging a situation if we decided to protest too quickly. Russell Means intended, for instance, to organize protests against the film Dances with Wolves. As he began organizing against what he saw as “Lawrence of the Plains,” he discovered many members of his community favored the film. Finding out where people are in their thinking is important in order to lead them.
Thanksgiving Day as Story
Why do we tell stories? We tell them to explain why we do certain things. The Pilgrim story explains pumpkin pie, Turkey and oyster dressing, and other traditional foods. Thanksgiving Day is a favorite holiday of mine. But I have never felt the need to make a pilgrimage (yes, pun intended) to Plymouth. Because, ultimately the story does not matter to me.
Why doesn’t it matter? Because the story is only one of the possible stories we could tell. However, we don’t know this because it is never discussed beyond the myth. There’s the myth and then the eating. We apparently have a feast to remember someone else giving thanks.
Story and History
History is always more nuanced than myth. But it is the myth that motivates observances and festivals. Holy Week is not a time to discuss the different trial, death, and resurrection stories of the gospels. We tell the generalized story that is based on the common elements of each gospel and combines a few others. There is no “just how it happened” on Good Friday. Liturgically, the story from the fourth gospel is told. This gospel serves as the source for the sunrise service. But the later service on Easter Sunday centers on another Resurrection story. Usually, only the pastor sees the differences.
The point I am trying to make is that none of these issues of the text changes the celebration or invalidates it. The pilgrim story has problems. The “good Indian” caricature is one problem. Another is “the shining city on a hill” version of white nationalism. Pilgrims and Puritans are confused by our imagery for the holiday. Most of the images are of Puritan men and women. The Plymouth Colony was made of a people with no creed or practice of “plainness.” These were Christians of the devotional variety. The First Church of Plymouth is Unitarian Universalist.
Day of Unity
I write these things today because the history of Thanksgiving Day is one about unity. Thanksgiving days were common in the United States until 1863 when one day was designated for the whole country. The Civil War gave us the Thanksgiving Day every American knows. When the world was plunged into a second World War, The United States made a formal day by Congressional action. Thanksgiving Day is about the unity needed to overcome destructive divisiveness. If the myth has become divisive, it should go as well. Replace it with history and allow a new myth to grow in its’ place.