My boyfriend is studying social work, a major filled with non-white, non-male, non-affluent people who want to make a change in the world. Many of these people are from other countries. He was telling me an anecdote (albeit over text message) that included a guy in his program from Cambodia who asked what Thanksgiving was. I'm sure my boyfriend tried his darndest to answer the guy, but concluded the anecdote with, "I realized I don't really know either." I wanted to fight him over this, because Thanksgiving has always meant so much to me. I got to thinking about it though, and this led me to the fact that no matter how historical or religiously based a holiday is, it's meaning isn't fixed and changes with the patterns of time. People change what things mean over time. Here is my best estimation of what the evolution of Thanksgiving has been:
Go back in time to when no one knew what racism was, or prejudice, or the Holocaust, or nuclear bombs, or racial cleansing, or any of those bad things we learn about in school now. Think about if all you knew was conquering for your monarch and not getting yourself killed in the process. Originally, Thanksgiving was another way colonists tricked Native Americans into cooking for them, teaching them to grow crops, and not starting wars with them, while slowly the colonists poisoned the country with new species and new diseases (read Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond if you're interested). So imagine a bunch of people not wearing feathers or pilgrim hats but indeed trying to convert one another, eating a lot of corn, and smiling through the fakery of it all. You can imagine that the roots weren't so strong to begin with.
Several Presidents settled the date of Thanksgiving in an attempt to promote peace within the United States after most of the Native Americans were already dead or on reservations. In fact, the holiday became, in 1863, about bringing together the northern and southern states by showing them that people who never really got along (Native Americans and Pilgrims) could totally get along. This was obviously hypocritical, since the Natives were being oppressed by their kind of "help." On the other hand, the ploy didn't work anyway, considering The Civil War and Reconstruction and The Civil Rights Movement and all of that. Not so much.
I'm not totally sure when the U.S. actually became all united and "We the People" and we're a melting pot/salad bowl/cornucopia, but it certainly did a number on Thanksgiving. See, with everyone getting along, there was no reason to hearken back to the good old days of Pilgrims and Indians unless you were a kindergartener who needed to make a feathered or buckled hat. In fact, this is when people started to realize that the basis for Thanksgiving was totally racist unless you were too young to realize that, so the roots of Thanksgiving had to change.
Here is the biggest shift, in my opinion. With the world going all crazy around them and the big focus on American family values, Thanksgiving became a celebration of family. Ask anyone to describe Thanksgiving who has a good family life (this includes myself) and it will consist of the following:
- "I so rarely get to see my family that Thanksgiving is a great time to see everyone and be thankful for the people I've had in my life."
- "I'm so thankful for my family the holidays remind me to tell them that!"
- "It's a celebration of family and friends."
- "Good food, great family, and good times."
Etc, etc, etc.
The problem with this conception is that it totally ignores the billions of families that are dysfunctional. I admit, I loved to gather around the table and have twelve different conversations going on while we passed each dish around, but I've met so many other people who had no Thanksgiving memories or just saw it as a drama. For these people, Thanksgiving is about enduring family, not celebrating it. Suffering through the conversation for the yummy food (that in no way resembles the "original" Thanksgiving food) and the after dinner football watching nap (which requires no interacting). Especially these days with the high divorce rates and the recession, more and more families are not to be celebrated. People want to be left alone.
And so I come to the present day and the questions, "What is Thanksgiving? Where are its roots? What does it mean?" In the lowest terms, I would have to say we're still figuring that out. There are a few signals to me that could be a promising future for Thanksgiving. First, more and more college-age students are having Thanksgiving together, not with or in addition to with, their families. This is promising to me because the most diverse population in the United States is that in college. Not only are people from all over the U.S., but from all over the world. This is a far cry from tricking Native Americans into teaching us how to fish so we can survive while they die from our epidemics. This is a sign of what people pretend Thanksgiving is about, people of different cultures getting along and creating a future together. Long way to go, I know.
Second, Thanksgiving celebrations are becoming more and more about intimacy and less about traveling from one house to another to appease all the family members. It's the holidays, I get it, but no one is happy driving twelve hours to see one second cousin and then driving all the way back to not miss the step-family's dessert. Distant relatives aren't going anywhere any faster than the ones standing right next to you. Intimate gatherings of just my sisters and I, or even just my boyfriend any I, are becoming more common. In this way, Thanksgiving is an excuse to really sit down and talk with people you breeze by on a daily basis, to enjoy their company, and to make memories.
Lastly, I've noticed Thanksgiving starting to span multiple days with the Black Friday craziness and now Cyber Monday, not to mention the huge runs on the grocery stores beforehand and all the darn television specials and football games. Thanksgiving has been commercialized since it was labeled the start of the Christmas season (an evolutionary point I skipped until just now). Normally, I would go cynical about the commercialization of holidays like everyone else, but with the state of our economy, I don't see this week of Thanksgiving as a bad thing. If Thanksgiving evolved to represent the saving of the American economy (The Day the Dow Turned Around) we would actually have something to celebrate. The fact that food and family and football and a parade are the way the U.S. balances its budget sparks no issue with me. Use it, abuse it, get it done.
Nevertheless, for those who Thanksgiving means something to, I appreciate your tenacity (I am one of you, after all). For those of you who could give a rats patooty, look at these signs in a positive light, someday we may be celebrating the fourth Thursday in November by having a parade aimed at diversity, listening for once to those who are supposed to be closest to us, and enjoying our privilege, as American citizens, to spend our money. My conclusion for you all is that people give their own meaning to the days of the year, and Thanksgiving is no exception. If holidays didn't evolve, we'd all be stuck in one place too. Happy Thanksgiving week to you and yours!