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Mainstream, Vol XLV, No 29

Thanksgiving and History

by Sangeeta Mall

Saturday 7 July 2007



Perhaps there is some absence of irony in celebrating the uniquely American festival of Thanksgiving, but at the moment it is not visible. If there is one thing Americans do not need to do, then it is give thanks. There is enough hypocrisy in America, in the world, without adding a national holiday to it.

The Mayflower pilgrims who escaped to America after facing oppression in their native land, England, celebrated a bountiful harvest in their new country by giving thanks, in the form of a feast. Ninetyone Indians participated in the feast. The Indians hunted down venison and fowl and the feast was celebrated with their help. It was only fifty years later, in 1676, that Thanks-giving was officially proclaimed as a festival in Massachusetts. The Indians were not included, for the thanksgiving in part celebrated the victory of the colonists over the ‘heathen natives’. By 1777, all the thirteen colonies of America had made Thanksgiving an official holiday, though there was resentment about celebrating something that essentially commemorated the prosperity of a few pilgrims. The festival fell under dispute, with Thomas Jefferson actively scoffing at the idea. It was revived through the campaign of one Sarah Josepha Hale, who campaigned for forty years to make this into a national holiday, and it was so proclaimed in 1863 under the rule of President Abraham Lincoln. Thanksgiving falls on the fourth Thursday of November every year.

There is an element of charm and romanticism in giving thanks to a gracious God who provides man with this bountiful earth, where grain is plentiful, land is abundant, and sheep and cattle graze in the lush green meadows. There is a certain poignancy in noting that the pilgrims invited the Indians to share in their feast, since they were helpless without the Indians’ help. This comic strip rendition of the pilgrims’ gratitude puts a graceful tablecloth over the battle-scarred and violent history of American colonisation, and puts the myth of bounty over the tablecloth, leaving no room for lifting it to examine the contents beneath closely. What is Thanksgiving really for? Of course, it is for successful colonisation. As George Washington in his Thanksgiving speech says:

Now, therefore, I do recommend and assign Thursday, the 26th day of November next, to be devoted by the people of these States to the service of that great and glorious Being who is the beneficent author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be; …for the signal and manifold mercies and the favourable interpositions of His providence in the course and conclusion of the late war; for the great degree of tranquillity, union, and plenty which we have since enjoyed; for the peaceable and rational manner in which we have been enable to establish constitutions of government for our safety and happiness, and particularly the national one now lately instituted for the civil and religious liberty with which we are blessed…

Civil and religious liberty? Whose? By 1789, when George Washington issued this proclama-tion, the colonies and their residents had acquired almost all the land by use of force, and made settlements by evicting and killing the native Indians who had lived on the land for millennia. Most plantations, particularly in the South, were being run by using slave labour imported from Africa. America had broken free of the colonial shackles of England, but was founded quite firmly on the devices of plunder, pillage and war. Of course, the resultant prosperity needed to be commemorated. After all, God had finally chosen to smile upon the victims of religious persecution by giving them the riches and power that they justly deserved.

TODAY, America is among the most racially divided countries in the world. Only one modern nation has had greater racial segregation than exists today in many American cities. That nation was South Africa in the years before the end of apartheid, says Douglas Massey, a Professor of Sociology and Public Affairs at Princeton University. Native Indians are confined to reservations, more like artificial exhibits than a free people, struggling to keep the minuscule remnants of a culture alive. African Americans have developed a distinct culture of the underclass, almost segregated from the mainstream habits of the White Anglo-Saxon Americans. America, land of the free, has more slavery than most other countries, certainly more than any other country in the West. In Sasha Baron Cohen’s mockumentary Borat, a college student in a fit of rage declares that perhaps slavery should be reinstated.

It could be argued that problems of race, segregation, slavery haunt other countries as much, if not more, than America. It could be argued that America offers more freedom of expression than most other nations, that it allows for more innovation and entrepreneurial talent than almost any other country on earth. That is not the point. No other country celebrates a national holiday by way of giving thanks for its good fortune. There is grotesque cruelty in the very concept. Should the British give thanks for having built their prosperity on the foundation of colonisation? Or the French? Or the Japanese? Or the Chinese? Should the Jews give thanks for having a homeland that is annexed by force from the Palestinians?

Beleaguered pilgrims finding a home in an alien and hostile land merited thanksgiving. Subsequent events of bloodshed and slavery don’t. It is the failure to recognise this reality that turns the festival of Thanksgiving into a mockery of all that is peaceful and honourable in this world.

Sangeeta Mall is at present doing her Masters’ in Creative Writing from the University of Pittsburgh, US. She is the former Managing Editor of the The Radical Humanist.

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