Next week we will celebrate Thanksgiving, an annual food fest for family and friends. The cuisine reflects our diverse culture. Most of us will eat New World foods like turkey, squash and cranberries. But the choices will vary from kosher to halal; from tacos and burritos to pickled red beets and pumpkin pie; from sweet and sour pork to chutneys and curries.
Thanksgiving is the most “American” holiday we celebrate. According to the accepted historical version, the first Thanksgiving occurred in 1621 when the Pilgrims sat down to a feast with Squanto and the Wampanoag Indian tribe. The meal was a celebration for the Pilgrims of surviving a hard year and recognition that they couldn’t have done it without the help of the Wampanoag.
Of course, that version is completely bogus because we know from historical records that the Pilgrims pushed the Wampanoag and neighboring tribes off the land through what today we call ethnic cleansing. The tribes of New England, like all other tribes within the territorial borders of the U.S., were systemically decimated by wars and diseases. Indians didn’t become U.S. citizens until federal law changed in 1924.
So why bother celebrating Thanksgiving?
Every country is held together by its common traditions. Common traditions give us a point of reference to help us find our place in the world. In a huge, diverse country like America, common traditions had to be created from scratch. Traditions created from scratch reflected what those with power at the time wanted to showcase; not how it really was.
George Washington issued the first presidential proclamation calling for a celebration of thanksgiving. No one asked if his slaves were invited. Abraham Lincoln called for a day of Thanksgiving in 1863, when the Civil War wasn’t going well for the Union.
Thanksgiving became a federal holiday in 1942, less than a year after the Pearl Harbor attack. No one mentioned that Japanese Americans had been unconstitutionally stripped of their property and rights as citizens and then required to prove their loyalty by sending their sons to fight in the war. (For a real American hero, google “Senator Daniel Inouye”.)
But over time, countries evolve as circumstances change. What was once socially or politically acceptable is no longer so. Now, the diversity of America’s people calls for a more nuanced view of our history and traditions. The unpleasant truths behind the origins of Thanksgiving, and so much more in American history, can be acknowledged without damaging our country.
It’s time to create a new common tradition that is a more honest reflection of who we are and what we aspire to become. Our food choices already acknowledge our diversity. Now, celebrate Thanksgiving by acknowledging the good and bad historical experiences of our diverse population. An America without our diversity would be uninspiring and the food boring.
About Norma Shirk
My company, Corporate Compliance Risk Advisor, helps small businesses create human resources policies and risk mitigation programs that are appropriate to the employer’s size and budget. The goal is to help small companies grow by creating the necessary back office administrative structure while avoiding the dead weight of a bureaucracy. To read my musings on the wacky world of human resources, see the HR Compliance Jungle (www.hrcompliancejungle.com) which alternates on Wednesday mornings with my history blog, History By Norma, (available at http://www.normashirk.com). To read my musings on a variety of topics, see my posts on Her Savvy (www.hersavvy.com).
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