As the cold season creeps in, Thanksgiving brings family and friends together to share a moment of warmth. Celebrated every 4th Thursday of November in the United States, it falls this year on Thursday the 25th. On a symbolic level, thanksgiving celebrates the little things, and asks everyone to acknowledge, and appreciate both the small and the big joys of life. But what is this day really all about?
Remembering the myth
In 1620, the Pilgrims travelling aboard the Mayflower arrived in Plymouth Massachusetts, the second successful colony after Jamestown in Virginia. Unused to the harsh weather, the Pilgrims had a hard time getting used to the new environment. The story of Thanksgiving recounts how the Native Americans helped the Pilgrims through their first winter by sharing their harvests during a three-day feast.
Although it is a popular holiday, the colonialist dimension surrounding the story of Thanksgiving has been problematic because of how the Native Americans were portrayed and remembered. According to the Smithsonian magazine in an interview they conducted with history professor David Silverman, the Wampanoag people (the Native American tribe present when the Pilgrims arrived) have “felt like their people’s history as they understood it was being misrepresented”. Indeed, over the past years, Thanksgiving has faced some controversy due to the colonial baggage the story carries. In his book This Land Is Their Land: The Wampanoag Indians Plymouth Colony, and the Troubled History of Thanksgiving, Silverman explains why it is important to understand the background and context surrounding the holiday. This means continuing to celebrate and appreciating life, all while understanding the complexity of history.
Thanksgiving traditions have evolved towards a family-centered moment and have partly distanced themselves from the original story. Both Thursday and Friday are a school holiday, giving children a four-day weekend to celebrate. Every year, New York hosts the biggest Thanksgiving parade and families watch the football games.
The holiday, built around the idea of giving thanks, encourages families and friends to gather together and share a meal. Leading up to it, elementary schools often have activities organized such as drawing hand turkeys or writing “thankful notes”. It is a way for each and everyone to stop and think about the different things they are thankful for, and to appreciate what one has. Traditional meals are cooked, including mashed potatoes, turkey and turkey stuffing, gravy, green beans, cranberry sauce, and signature pumpkin pie.
Even though the religious and historical dimensions have evolved, it remains one of the most important days in the United States. The controversial aspects are not to be overlooked, but should be understood, so that Thanksgiving can be celebrated at its fullest.
Although it is not really a holiday elsewhere (except for Canadian Thanksgiving), the symbolism of Thanksgiving is worth incorporating in daily life. The idea of giving thanks lets us all stop for a minute and look back on all that is happening in our lives and in the world. And as the famous American poet and civil rights activist Maya Angelou stated : “Be present in all things, and thankful for all things”.
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