Not long after the publication of my history of Thanksgiving last year, I received a menacing email from someone who had heard me interviewed on National Public Radio. The sender was outraged at my view that the 1621 event that has come to be known as the First Thanksgiving is something to celebrate.
“How dare you suppress the true story of ‘Thanksgiving?’ ” she asked. “Our indigenous people are enduring so much, and you disregard the genocide and actions forced upon them. Please stop validating immoral and homicidal acts. Where is your moral fiber? Rescind your invalid words. We are watching.”
The email was unsigned, but I traced the address to a woman who teaches at an elite Eastern college. I can’t say I was surprised. Attacks on Thanksgiving come largely from the academy. A University of Texas professor wants Thanksgiving to be replaced with a national Day of Atonement to “acknowledge the genocide of indigenous people that is central to the creation of the United States.” At Barnard College in New York City in 2013, the student government sent out an email before the holiday break urging students “to not forget that this holiday commemorates genocide and American imperialism.”
For the most part, though, the PC police are out of luck when it comes to Thanksgiving. It is not about to go the way of Columbus Day, which has been replaced by Indigenous People’s Day in 55 cities and several states.
Americans’ favorite holiday has survived other sporadic attacks over the nearly 400 years since the famous three-day feast in Plymouth, Mass.
In the 17th century, days of thanksgiving were originally called to express gratitude to God for specific beneficences such as a rainfall that ended a drought. Theologians objected when thanksgiving holidays became annual events for the purpose of expressing gratitude for nonspecific, everyday blessings. They feared that the act of giving thanks would become an empty ritual.
In 1789, the first U.S. Congress debated the constitutionality of a national Thanksgiving. Opponents of a proposal to ask George Washington to declare a day of Thanksgiving argued that such authority rested with state governors, not the president. They objected, too, on grounds of separation of church and state. The pro-Thanksgiving forces prevailed, and Washington proclaimed our first national Thanksgiving. The anti-Thanksgiving arguments resurfaced in the early 19th century, when President Thomas Jefferson explained his refusal to name a Thanksgiving day even though he had done so as governor of Virginia.
Later in the 19th century, Americans’ mania for the new sport of football sparked a national discussion over the meaning of the holiday. Critics argued that Thanksgiving Day football intruded on family gatherings and obscured the religious obligation to give thanks to God and remember the less fortunate. The New York Herald lamented that, “The kicker now is king and the people bow down to him.”
By the 20th century, Thanksgiving’s popularity was so strong that even the president could get in trouble for tinkering with tradition. Franklin Roosevelt launched a nationwide brouhaha in 1939 when he announced that Thanksgiving would be celebrated a week earlier than usual. Half the states refused to go along with “Franksgiving.” Congress passed legislation in 1941 fixing the holiday on the fourth Thursday of November.
The rise of the Indian Pride movement in the 1970s called attention to Native American culture, which had been neglected or misrepresented in Thanksgiving celebrations. A group in Plymouth renamed Thanksgiving a “Day of Mourning” and spent the day fasting. On the other coast, Native Americans declared an “Un-Thanksgiving,” holding their protest on Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay. Meanwhile, Ronald Reagan became the first president to mention Native Americans in a Thanksgiving proclamation when he quoted a Seneca prayer of gratitude in 1984.
In our own century, the International Indian Treaty Council, the advocacy group that oversees the alternative Thanksgiving on Alcatraz, has changed the name to Indigenous People’s Thanksgiving, which it views as a more appropriate characterization of the event.
“We have lots to be thankful for,” Andrea Carmen, the council’s executive director, told me last year. “Our ancestors kept our spiritual traditions, our culture, our history, alive. We are thankful in spite of what happened to us.”
Many participants also mark Thanksgiving Day in the familiar way, she adds. Ms. Carmen sees no contradiction. “We’re an inter-cultural people,” she says. It is natural that Native Americans would want to mark the day with both of the traditions they value. The gathering concludes by 9 a.m.—in time for participants to get home and put a turkey in the oven.
The rites and rituals of our national Thanksgiving have evolved over four centuries and that process surely will continue. The essence of the holiday, however, is unlikely to change. Families and friends will continue to gather, the turkey will take pride of place on the dinner table, and the generous spirit of the American people will ensure that the poor, sick, imprisoned and lonely will be included in the celebration. Just about every American celebrates Thanksgiving; for new citizens, it is a rite of passage. When we gather around the holiday table this Thursday, we will be taking part in our country’s oldest tradition—giving thanks.