This year is not the actual 400th anniversary of the first Thanksgiving. Nor were turkey and cornbread served with expressions of mutual respect and gratitude.
This uniquely American expression of our values could be made richer if its history were told accurately and in all its complexity.
Celebrations between white Christian explorers and the indigenous people who helped them survive did happen, but earlier and in lots of places other than Plymouth Rock in 1621.
It was the influence of Sarah Josepha Hale, editor of Godey’s Lady’s Book, a magazine, that led President Abraham Lincoln to declare Thanksgiving a holiday in 1863.
In the middle of the Civil War, a simple story of Pilgrims and Wampanoags dining together became the perfect embodiment of Lincoln’s hopes for his nation.
Contacts between European settlers and indigenous people like the Wampanoags sometimes were peaceful, but sometimes not. The story played out as centuries of loss for the Wampanoags and all the others erased from history, sometimes completely and almost always violently.
Thanksgiving can be a time of grieving rather than gratitude, depending on who is doing the telling. Historic truth is always more complex than children’s stories. Myths reinforce cultural values but should be acknowledged as such.
Admitting that 17th-century Pilgrims didn’t live by modern ideals of basic humanity isn’t the same as blaming white people. Admitting that indigenous people were often aggressors is not the same as labeling them savages.
Acknowledging historic truths about ancestors does not require personal guilt or vindication from the living.
Modern Germany has resisted all attempts to paper over the Holocaust as part of its history. School children learn about the brutal destruction of millions of lives by the Nazis. Germans know that their country’s past is complex, that its most painful parts have been rejected and that they can be justifiably proud of being German today.
America should follow that example.
Noble aspirations can be celebrated, whether or not those aspirations have been realized. Flawed people and beliefs can be rejected for the evil they did.
Pilgrims treated Wampanoags horrifically while describing themselves as the “city on a hill, a shining example to the nations.” They created laws and institutions that came to define liberal democracy and, eventually, the United States.
Admitting both the sins and the strengths of history is the best way not to repeat the mistakes of the past and to be proud of the present. We can learn the truth about what this nation was, acknowledge what it is and celebrate what it can become.
In that spirit, enjoy this simple, complex, most American holiday. Happy Thanksgiving.
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