You don’t need to wish me a Happy Thanksgiving.
I don’t celebrate the holiday. Not for the last two years, at least.
Perhaps I would feel differently about the day if it weren’t for my family history (more on that later) or for the fact that I was born and raised in a country in which this is not a real holiday. It doesn’t exist outside of America. I know Canada has a version of it, but it’s not as fraught with problems as the American one.
I was obsessed with the holiday as a child because of how it was depicted in American films. The foods were so foreign to me and it always looked like people had a rip-roaring time. Like many Hollywood-generated American myths I held onto as a child, the curtain would eventually drop and the truth would – deservedly so – ruin the holiday for me.
My first year in America I was rabidly excited for an American Thanksgiving celebration. The turkey filled to overflowing with stuffing – whatever that was. The sweet potatoes with a burnished marshmallow topping. The creamy mashed potatoes. The green bean casserole. The pies – oh the pies – the likes of which I never imagined: pumpkin, pecan, sweet potato. And that strange burgundy cylindrical-shaped jiggling wonder you’d slather on pieces of turkey.
Now…here’s the thing…my family is – obviously – not American. There is no experience cooking what would be considered ‘American’ cuisine.
So all those Hollywood-made meals I had dreamt about came to me in the form of a Turkey stuffed with rice….with raisins in it.
Not even figs….raisins.
It began my loathing for any foods with raisins in it. Although I do love them on their own.
I was confused by the array of dishes that were some Frankenstein-ed amalgamation of American and Middle Eastern food.
Oh, wait, we have mashed potatoes! Where the hell is the gravy?
After a few years of going through what I felt was a sin before all creators. I stopped going.
I think the next time I started having Thanksgiving dinners was in grad school with my bezzie Sara. Our meals were always fun and fraught with peril, such as the one year she forgot to defrost the Turkey breast (not a whole bird – we were grad students on a budget after all) and we had to alternate between microwave and oven. But it was the first time I had green bean casserole. It began a life-long love affair with that dish.
I don’t think I had a truly ‘authentic’ Thanksgiving dinner until I spent it with my friend Tony and his family. This was a black Thanksgiving dinner – an epic day of food, learning to play spades and tonk, anecdotes, laughter, and more generosity than I had ever experienced.
THIS was the Hollywood meal I had always dreamed of. They remain my favourite Thanksgiving meals.
I remember having a few unsuccessful meals when I lived in NYC. Unsuccessful because I don’t think I ever captured the grandeur of what the meal was meant to be.
And when I moved to London the celebration died away because it’s not celebrated there. I did spend one year with my friend Catherine in Birmingham, but the food just wasn’t the same. And I suspect this is muchly because food in the UK tastes like – well – real food. Green bean casserole isn’t the same without all the chemicals and preservatives coating your tongue.
When I moved back to America in 2017, I had already been used to not celebrating Thanksgiving. So it was only a very small step to eliminate the celebration completely.
Because I realised it was a hypocritical slap in the face to celebrate a holiday borne from of taking the piss out of the indigenous American genocide. My grandmother survived the Armenian Genocide. How could I raise my fist in anger to one ethnic cleansing only to turn around and subconsciously celebrate another?
Invariably, when I am asked what I am doing or am wished a Happy Thanksgiving, and have to then explain that I don’t celebrate it anymore and why, I am met with an awkward pause followed by one of four replies:
- It’s a way for my family and I to get together.
- NEWSFLASH: You can do this anytime. If you don’t like your family don’t use this day as an excuse. Just don’t see them.
- It’s way to have an amazing big meal with all the fixings.
- NEWSFLASH: You can do this anytime. All the ingredients used at Thanksgiving meals are available anytime during the year.
- It’s a time for us to give thanks.
- NEWSFLASH: You could, and should, do this any day at any hour at any given moment.
- Oh don’t start. Just get over it.
And here’s a NEWSFLASH: I won’t. And neither should you.
These are people who shed tears and are deeply angered by the ethnic cleansing in Palestine, Syria, Yemen, China, Sudan, and Myanamar.
These are people who watch movies about the Holocaust and weep at the inhumanity and the loss – the salvation and the small slivers of hope.
These are people who, in turn, don’t want to deal with the Indigenous American Genocide because they can’t have their big meal and holiday savings ruined.
America’s current obsession with nostalgia and it’s self-fabricated historical greatness only applies to ‘positive’ things. And, look, America is by far not the only country whose origins have been mired in bloodshed and thievery. Every single colonialising Imperialist country and empire started this way.
And in every single case, no one understands the history of most national celebrations. Worse than this nostalgia for the great old days is a selfish thread of apathy and feigned empathy that is deeply woven into the American way of life.
In truth, I would have no issues if the holiday was celebrated as it was originally meant to be. I would be surprised if more than 1% of the population knew that Washington held the first Thanksgiving celebration, but it wasn’t until a woman suggested it to Lincoln that it became an official day because she thought it was a problem that not all areas in the country celebrated it and often not on the same date.
That woman was Sarah Josepha Hale, the then editor of the influential Godey’s Lady’s Book magazine. She sent correspondences to Lincoln making her case. It is a FASCINATING historical story that has been buried. You can read the whole thing here.
But the two largest takeaways was that she wanted the entire country to take their disparate days of giving thanks and unite as one nation on one day. And Lincoln agreed. He wanted a united nation to come together and give thanks and spend the day in public prayer. It was actually quite a religious holiday meant to give thanks to your maker. And despite my opinions about religion, I would prefer this because it celebrates unity and sacrifice and what is needed to unite.
The second, and to me the most important, takeaway was something incredible she said in one of her letters:
“The influx of foreigners into our country is prodigious. Not only the natural increase of population, but by immigration, our numbers are growing, and our Western wilderness is fast shrinking before the pioneers of civilization. To bind together the discordant nationalities into one American brotherhood, what strand so potent as Thanksgiving? A community of praise and of kindly offices will soon establish a community of feeling and of language. Let every one who claims the name of American, wherever he may be—in the old world or the new, on the land or on sea—unite to commemorate the day. It will be stronger than laws or armies to make our nation one.“
THIS, I think, is the ideal basis for this holiday, not only because it’s true, but also because that was why the holiday was created in the first place: The unification of a nation regardless of ridiculous nationalistic ideologies of what is a ‘real’ American. Bringing everyone together under the American banner. A nationalism free of bigotry and hate.
You should definitely read Lincoln’s Thanksgiving Proclamation. And remember that he was a Republican. A true one. Not the insane idiots running around today.
It wasn’t until Jefferson came along that any notion of religion was removed from the celebration because he felt they were inappropriate for a nation based on the separation of church and state.
Let that sink in and think about modern American politics and how the government has betrayed almost every single tenet of the Founding Fathers.
I suspect the shift to taking the piss out of Native Americans happened when Roosevelt moved it to the third Thursday of every month in an effort to boost holiday sales by giving people extra time to shop for gifts; this was the tale-end of the Depression after all. But Congress said no, it stayed on the fourth Thursday, and the introduction of sales and shopping became a permanent fixture.
I suspect to make the holiday more palatable to people of all backgrounds and faiths, in an effort to get them to buy into the modern commercial and economics needs of the holidays, that the false tale of Pilgrims & Natives was spun.
I do remember, weirdly, creating hand turkeys around the holiday. Something the American teachers at my school likely brought with them (it was a very international school I attended). I remember not knowing why the hell I was creating this thing, but going along for the ride.
And people are still going along for the ride. We’ve been conditioned to think holidays like this mean something they are not. It’s a chance for a massive economic boost that likely wouldn’t be as successful without a holiday wrapped around it that gives you time off to do said shopping. Consider than we now have three days of bargains wrapped around Thanksgiving: Black Friday, Cyber Monday, Tech Tuesday.
But more than all that, people are going along for a ride on a road made of slaughtered Indigenous People and the erasure of an entire people and way of life.
The header image is one of my favourite representations of tribal territory because it not only shows how the literal entire land was already inhabited, but also that the notion of boundaries – one of the worst evils to come out of the West and colonialism – didn’t exist. Separation and Unity were able to co-exist. I’m not saying the entirety of Native America history was all peaches and cream; we are humans after all – a flawed and often violent species.
The Spanish and English did what they did best – colonise, terrorise, and erase. And American inherited these skills in spades.
So how could I celebrate on this day? How could any of us given the myth still spun around the day?
But I know people will.
So if you do insist of continuing to celebrate the holiday, and I suspect 99.9% of people still will despite what I, and many others, have said, then I urge you to take a read of this and try to incorporate it into your celebration.
Because while most Americans celebrate today joyfully and gather around to watch a parade, and drink, and eat, and fight, it is a tremendous day of mourning for the indigenous people that are left in America who are forced to live on land that is perhaps 1% of what was once theirs.
We are laughing in the ever-widening wake of Genocide.
I am not foolish in thinking this will ever change. The holiday is so deeply ingrained in the American consciousness and in the economic stability of American capitalism that I doubt the government would ever shift it. I think it IS possible. I think it CAN be done. But until the country and it’s people recognise the skeletons shoved into the closet behind the holiday it won’t.
So what do you do?
Teach the real history of the holiday.
Teach the horror and nightmare the early country visited upon Native Americans.
Be a part of upending the false paradigms the country thinks it was based on.
Take a moment to find out whose land it once was where you are having your meal and take a moment of silence to recognise, celebrate, and mourn them.
And please, for Heaven’s sake, stop with the hand turkeys!
As you were.
I am so grateful that you are in my life. I tell you that often, so don’t take it as a holiday greeting.
Thank you for writing so clearly, yet with passion.
I am in awe of you.