If you are going to hate Thanksgiving, you should probably do so for the right reason.
The American Thanksgiving holiday is not primarily a yearly reenactment of a meal that took place in Plymouth some 394 years ago. The Mayflower Pilgrims have come to be part of our Thanksgiving mythology, but the impulse that created our national holiday does not depend upon Plymouth. If Plymouth had never existed, the Thanksgiving holiday would still take place.
The 1620 Plymouth settlement was the project of a specific group of English Separatists with their own particular history and agenda. They are not a cipher for “all Europeans who settled in the Americas.” They are even different people than those who settled the nearby Massachusetts Bay Colony beginning in 1628. The Pilgrims were Separatists. Their Massachusetts neighbors were Puritans. Different people. Different histories. Different ideas and values. Different economic status. Different purpose for coming to the American continent. I’ve seen the Pilgrims blamed not only for every atrocity that came to take place in New England in the 1600’s, but for events hundreds of years and thousands of miles distant from from Plymouth’s shores. The passengers on the Mayflower are hardly responsible, for example, for the slaughter of bison on the western plains in the 1800s.
Perhaps people have become so fixated on the politics of the Pilgrim thanksgiving because our nation can no longer take the original purpose of Thanksgiving seriously.
George Washington proclaimed the first national day of Thanksgiving in 1789, asserting that “it is the duty of all nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey His will, to be grateful for His benefits, and humbly to implore His protection and favour.” There was no mention of the Pilgrims.
Thanksgiving became an annual holiday beginning in 1863 when President Lincoln issued his own proclamation of Thanksgiving. After recalling the nation’s blessings, Lincoln continued:
No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy. It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole American People. I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens.
Prayers of thanksgiving, Lincoln said, are “justly due Him for such singular deliverances and blessings.” Again, Lincoln made no mention of the Pilgrims or Plymouth Rock.
Thanksgiving is not the annual celebration of Pilgrim history. It’s not about something that happened nearly 400 years ago. The Pilgrims are merely illustrative of something more basic. Thanksgiving is a day in which the nation partially fulfills its obligation to give thanks to Almighty God for his blessings to us, here and now. It’s about the present, not the distant past.
If you want to hate Thanksgiving, don’t do so because you hate early Americans or certain events in American history. Hate it because you hate the idea that the nation’s citizens owe a duty to the God of all creation.