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Thanksgiving and When Our Culture Screws Up

Posted by spritzophrenia on November 25, 2010

I want to suggest most of our national holidays and remembrances are culturally distorted. From their origins, somehow they become nice-ified and turn into celebrations of family, sentimentalism, greed and ignorance.

For example, Mother’s Day. Do the research and you’ll find it should be called something like “Mothers for Peace Day”. It was an anti-war day, and one of its founders died fighting what it became. What has it turned into now? A sentimental send-a-card day.

It’s doubtful the early Christians celebrated Christmas. Yet what does it mean today? The gross celebration of a day when a fat old man gives “good” children presents and commerce rejoices.


Easter? Bunnies, chocolate and “new life”, adopted from pagan celebrations. (There was almost certainly no goddess “Eostre”, by the way.)

But perhaps these holidays can be re-mythologised, and still celebrated by those who care about history? Here’s one Native American’s way of doing thanksgiving. Alternatively, Robert Jensen, a journalism professor at the University of Texas at Austin has written Why We Shouldn’t Celebrate Thanksgiving. He suggests “Thanksgiving Day should be turned into a National Day of Atonement to acknowledge the genocide of America’s indigenous peoples.” Let’s face it, anyone who bothers doing the research will soon discover that Native Americans have been despicably treated. Can holidays like this be redeemed? Jensen writes:

Of course people often struggle for control over the meaning of symbols and holidays, but typically we engage in such battles when we believe there is some positive aspect of the symbol or holiday worth fighting for. For example, Christians — some of whom believe that Christmas should focus on the values of universal love and world peace rather than on orgiastic consumption — may resist that commercialization and argue in public and private for a different approach to the holiday. Those people typically continue to celebrate Christmas, but in ways consistent with those values. In that case, people are trying to recover and/or reinforce something that they believe is positive because of values rooted in a historical tradition. Those folks struggle over the meaning of Christmas because they believe the core of Christianity is experienced through the people we touch, not the products we purchase. In that endeavor, Christians are arguing the culture has gone astray and lost the positive, historical grounding of the holiday.

But what is positive in the historical events that define Thanksgiving? What tradition are we trying to return to? I have no quarrel with designating a day (or days) that would allow people to take a break from our often manic work routines and appreciate the importance of community, encouraging all of us to be grateful for what we have. But if that is the goal, why yoke it to Thanksgiving Day and a history of celebrating European/white dominance and conquest? Trying to transform Thanksgiving Day into a true day of thanksgiving, it seems to me, is possible only by letting go of this holiday, not by remaining rooted in it.

This re-imaging of Christmas is something my family started many years ago. We now have a “secret Santa” draw where we only buy one present that must cost less than $20. Christmas is no longer a stressful time desperately trying to buy presents for the entire family that no-one really needs.

Why is it that we tend to forget? Why do we turn these “celebrations” into sentimental pap?


Do you think we should remember history? How will you celebrate?
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9 Responses to “Thanksgiving and When Our Culture Screws Up”

  1. Theresa said

    I’m no Christian, but I do love Christmas.
    First off, I live in Sweden. It gets dark here around 4pm. So the Christmas-lightning is a welcomed feature. šŸ™‚

    And, of course, it’s great to get together with family, eat good food and just relax. (But that can be done anytime of the year)

    But the one big thing I absolutely love about Christmas is the ‘feeling’ in the air!
    Everybody is acting nicer, smiles are on everybody’s lips. The television shows, this one time in a year, movies you’ll actually want to see!
    The children are happy and excited. The ‘classic Christmas songs’, from Sinatra, Cosby and Armstrong make my heart sing.
    So, for me, the whole world becomes a better place, this once a year.

    And there’s no stress, no competition (about the best gift or decoration), no false expectations about “how it should be- like the magazines tells us”.

    You just ‘are’ and accept others to ‘be’. *sigh* Love Christmas! šŸ™‚

  2. Lydia said

    While reading Robert Jensen’s article I kept thinking about the plantation museums that I’ve finished in the deep south in the U.S. The buildings themselves were beautiful. The stories we were told about the people who lived there were so sentimentalized that they’d become something else entirely.

    The tour guides completely glossed over all of the atrocities of antebellum slavery. They showed us a tiny cabin where slaves had lived but never mentioned that a dozen or so people slept in a room the size of a walk-in closet. Other than that one exhibit, it was almost as if the plantation had run itself. Nearly everything else was about the beautiful clothing, furniture, etc. in the main house.

    I think we* do this to history for a few different reasons: 1) shame, 2) ignorance about what actually happened, 3) those whose ancestors were the ones doing the harm don’t know how to talk about it, 4) it conflicts with our* patriotism, 5) this is how history was (is?) taught in school and most people never push past those simplistic lessons.

    *This isn’t restricted to only the U.S.

  3. Cristine said

    Thanksgiving may have started as a “harvest festival” celebrating the Native Americans helping the Pilgrims but now it is more of a day of Gratitude and family (and watching football)

    • Lydia said

      Interesting, Cristine. I do see where you’re coming from. If the meaning of a word can shift over a few generations (or even just a couple of decades!) it does make sense for a holiday to do the same thing as well. I heard recently that Thanksgiving was originally a day of fasting and prayer rather than our current tradition of (over) eating. (link here: http://video.scholastic.com/services/player/bcpid1543302482?bctid=677577375001 )

      • Cristine said

        o how ironic!! that we went from fasting to over feasting!!! but yes, i do believe the meaning of the word (and holiday) has changed and to get rid of the holiday is throwing out the baby with the bathwater

  4. Crystal said

    Very insightful. I actually think that we really should include a yearly time of remembrance in our holiday festivities… Maybe a moment of silence before Thanksgiving dinner. Still, that somehow doesn’t seem like enough. Thanks for posting this piece. šŸ™‚

  5. Anne said

    This is a belated response, but (for anyone still listening) I wanted to say that I think Jacqueline Keeler’s Native American Thanksgiving piece you’ve included here is very good, and appreciated her idea of a cultural system of giving instead of selling. (I did have a giggle when I was then reading along only to come to her ad for a purified water system…) Most holidays we end up with my partner Ed’s family, who do not bring any sense of spirituality or conscience to holidays. But I try to remember what I’m thankful for as a life-long tradition, and give those thoughts a little more juice at Thanksgiving.

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