Enough with Turkey Day. It's Thanksgiving.
What’s wrong with this picture?
On the surface, many would probably say nothing. But that’s precisely the problem. When things are wrong but look fine on the surface, most of us find it easier to just look the other way.
So, the problem with this picture. Besides the barrage of photos snapped of every kid during their truncated school day (do toddlers really need phones in their faces all the time?), and the oversized, ineffective masks covering up their smiles and ability to process social cues…there are the turkeys.
Did you know that a flock of turkeys is called a rafter? No? Neither did I. But that’s what my four-year-old daughter is learning in preschool because that’s apparently what Thanksgiving is all about these days. Turkey, turkey, turkey. A WHOLE RAFTER OF THEM.
Turkeys made from paper plates and cardboard. Handmade dough. Googly eyes. Feathers. Markers. Paint. Crayons. A Pinterest poultry paradise!
But the closest thing in these preschool projects to a pilgrim was…yet another TURKEY! The cartoon bird was wearing the stereotypical top hat.
Does anyone else remember those elementary school Thanksgiving reenactments, where half of us wore the construction paper pilgrim hats and the others wore the American Indian feather headbands? Where was the rafter of turkeys then? Oh, right. On the dinner table. I hate to break it to today’s woke educators but…Thanksgiving isn’t actually about turkey! We don't even know whether they ate turkey at the First Thanksgiving! (And before you jump on me for using the term "American Indian"...I've done my research and many of actually prefer this to "Native American" - even better to refer to them by specific tribe.)
The holiday is about giving thanks. Gratitude for the bountiful harvest that enabled the pilgrims to survive the harsh winter as they fled from religious persecution. And gratitude for all that we're blessed with today, while remembering the reason we started celebrating in the first place.
Did you know this year is actually the 400th anniversary of the First Thanksgiving?
Why would we, when the history of Thanksgiving seems so inconsequential these days? In case anyone has forgotten why we celebrate…
In 1620, 102 pilgrims boarded the Mayflower ship in Plymouth, England, eager for a fresh start in the New World. About half were Puritan separatists, who felt the powerful Church of England was too corrupt to save. But to King James I, these radical Christians were traitors. So they fled. First to the Netherlands, and then to North America.
The Mayflower departs from England. Courtesy: Getty Images
The journey aboard the Mayflower was rough. The first winter was even worse. By the time the snow began to melt in the new Plymouth colony, roughly half the pilgrims had died. But that spring, their prayers of survival were answered in the form of Squanto. This American Indian not only taught the pilgrims how to grow corn, catch fish and avoid poisonous plants, but also helped them forge an invaluable alliance with the local Wampanoag tribe.
According to the Smithsonian Institute, the Wampanoag had a long history of political dealings with other Native nations, and in a sense their relationship with the English was no different: it was about "political alliances, diplomacy, and a pursuit of peace". In addition, of course, to their instrumental role in the pilgrims' first successful harvest - and survival.
To celebrate this harvest, Plymouth Governor William Bradford organized a three-day November feast, to be enjoyed by the pilgrims and Wampanoag people, together. Although similar harvest feasts were celebrated by colonists in subsequent years, Thanksgiving didn’t become a national holiday until the height of the Civil War in 1863.
"First Thanksgiving" by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris. Courtesy: Associated Press
Critics would say this is the rosy version of the story. That it’s grossly inaccurate – and in poor taste – to celebrate this seeming aberration to the long, violent history between the colonists and American Indian tribes.
In fact, each Thanksgiving, the United American Indians of New England (UAINE) holds a protest overlooking Plymouth Rock. Organizers state: “Thanksgiving Day is a reminder of the genocide of millions of Native people, the theft of Native lands and the erasure of Native cultures.” Due to COVID, this year's National Day of Mourning will also stream live on YouTube. (Save this link if you'd like to watch).
UAINE's National Day of Mourning, held each year on Thanksgiving Day. Courtesy: UAINE
Is colonizing a principle that's condoned today? Absolutely not. The world in 2021 vs. 1621 is a different place with different moral standards. Let’s never forget the violence of white settlers against American Indians. Perhaps families can even integrate a moment of silence into their Thanksgiving feasts, where we pay respects to the countless lives lost at the hands of these settlers.
Still, that doesn't mean we can't celebrate the pilgrims’ escape from religious persecution. In fact, freedom of religion is one of the ideals on which our nation was founded.
So how do we handle this checkered, complex history?
Our preschool teachers do deserve some credit, because they're using the holiday to teach the important lesson of gratitude. They help kids recognize what they're thankful for, whether it's their family, candy, Paw Patrol, or all of the above.
Still, lessons are much more powerful, particularly for children, when they’re taught in context of something they can grasp, rather than in abstract form. Will the Thanksgiving lesson of gratitude really sink in, if they can only associate the holiday with googly-eyed turkeys and a big meal?
So let’s teach children an age-appropriate version of the truth. Teach them to discern the bad from the good, and ultimately, find the lessons from both - not determine it for them.
This way, the meaning of Thanksgiving will be preserved. Otherwise, it’ll soon be nothing more than a decadent kickoff to the holiday season: conspicuous consumption of Butterball turkey with all the fixings, followed by scores of Black Friday deals we really don’t need.