Thanksgiving [thaŋ(k)s-ˈgi-viŋ] is a famous legal holiday celebrated in the northern part of The Americas and throughout the world, one in which humans congregate, whether through bloodlines or by more convivial associations, to eat quantities of food while watching an almond-shaped, skin-covered bladder float from one end of a painted meadow to the other, accruing “points” for hours at a time until a mathematical conclusion has been made and a certain color is determined victor.
This holiday has long been a celebration of inelegance, of the forced overconsumption of rejected, typically-detested foodstuffs in the name of tradition. It is a holiday of flavorless birdflesh flavored by a sauce of its own innards, of jellied, bitter berries of infinite shelf life and frozen legumes layered with jiggly fungal soup and crispy bits derived from the common onion, of a universally-loathed orange tuber rendered palatable with whipped, sugary horse collagen roasted in unison, and whipped, sugary cow secretion served in dollops atop a fibrous, macerated gourd seasoned with a quasi-proprietary blend of spices of Very Far Eastern origin. It is a holiday of mushing all of these items together onto a flimsy plate and yelling -- or wanting to yell -- either at the armored sportsmen on the television or the one’s stubborn kin across the table, before restoring one’s plate and doing it all again.
It is good. It is a good holiday. It is an illogical holiday.
By now, most of us should know that the Puritan-Native story is largely, but not entirely, predicated on bullshit. It’s true that, in accordance with our origin story, a wave of British immigrants found, upon landing ashore, indigenous Americans -- the Wampanoag, in this case -- by the year 1621. It is also true that Tisquantum, who we call “Squanto,” served as an intermediary between the natives and the immigrants, helping the latter learn how to grow and harvest the “Three Sisters” -- corn, squash, and green beans -- in and around Plymouth, Massachusetts.
The Wampanoag, called this land Turtle Island. Turtle Island, of course, wasn’t necessarily a delineated parcel of land that belonged to this particular tribe, but rather a space which existed within a shared tradition common amongst multiple tribes, who conceived of the land as an all-encompassing entity tied in directly with their own spirituality. These are concepts that were lost on the colonists, and remain lost on this author, whose brain is literally a walnut.
In spite of what my childhood texts told me, it seems that Tisquantum wasn’t a member of the local tribe who found himself compelled by his pure savage heart to aid the noble Pilgrims upon the sudden arrival of their Mayflower. In fact, Tisquantum, a member of the Patuxet tribe, themselves a band of the Wampanoag, found himself abducted during an earlier expedition led by British “explorer” Thomas Hunt. In the Strait of Gibraltar, Hunt tried to sell off Tisquantum, and failed. Instead, some monks took in this Patuxet fellow, and tried to force-feed him their version of Christianity, but even they found little success in their venture. In turn, the man was smuggled to Spain, and then to Newfoundland, where Tisquantum convinced a British explorer named Dermer that a fortune could be made back in his homeland. Upon their arrival in 1620, however, Dermer found that the natives were given, strangely enough, to “an inveterate malice [toward] the English.” He makes no mention, of course, that by this point Tisquantum’s people had been completely decimated by disease, giving him the honor of being the last of the Patuxets. After serving as a liaison between the Puritans and the remaining Wampanoag, our “Squanto” helped negotiate a measure of peace, but by 1622, while helping William Bradford, the “Governor” of “Plymouth Colony,” steer a ship along the rocky shores of Cape Cod in a trading expedition, Tisquantum would succumb to what Bradford called an “Indian fever.”
If the “first Thanksgiving” did occur as we were taught, representative of the peace and gratitude shared between the British and the natives, it did so off the record. The first recorded feast of Thanksgiving actually occured in 1637, during the Pequot War and after the English had slaughtered several hundred Pequot humans in what is known today as the “Mystic” Massacre. The thanks to be given, then, was to God, who, per Bradford, showed a grace “wrought so wonderfully” against their rivals. From then onward, Thanksgiving feasts were a common occurrence, yes, but only in New England to commemorate "the sort of colonial violence that would become commonplace” against the natives.
It was only in 1863, with an eye on unifying a nation of divided white men, that President Lincoln declared a new American holiday called “Thanksgiving” would be celebrated on the last Thursday of each November (interestingly, when there were five Thursdays on the calendar in November, 1939, President Roosevelt bumped the holiday up a month under the auspice of extending the Christmas shopping season, paving the way for Black Friday in what many then were calling, quite wryly, “Franksgiving”).
Violence and greed: perhaps Thanksgiving truly is an American holiday? Though, to our defense, our culture -- ruthlessness included -- is nothing if not synthetic, a melding of traditions from the globe both imported and exported. Even in the strange case of pumpkin spice, before looking to the Islands of Indonesia, we must give a nod to the colonialists who came before: our pudding-eaters predecessors from the British Isles must themselves defer to the Ancient Romans, who loaded such spices into things they didn’t want to taste long before ol’ Frankie Drake’s plundering little balls could drop, and even longer before Hormel could conceive of their Limited Edition Pumpkin Spice SPAM.
Now, we might lazily link the gluttony of Thanksgiving to that of the harvest festival, where for millenia folks the whole world ‘round have been clearing out old stock while praying for a fruitful new season. One tradition that screams “AMERICA!” in particular is the festival of Dożynki, where a West Slavic tribe called the Rani would try to make a giant pancake out of the remains of last year’s harvest: noted Slavic scholar Jaromar F. Wikipedia claims that if the cake was big enough for the priest to hide behind, the next year’s harvest would be equally abundant. The Ewastini tradition of Incwala also rings familiar, where in the interest of encouraging togetherness, everyone is forced to live together for the duration of the holiday, while single people are expected to perform a disproportionate amount of harvesting in service to the King. Another“first fruits” tradition related to Incwala, celebrated by the Zulu people of southern Africa, features the king breaking a gourd -- smashing a pumpkin, if you will -- to kick off their feast. Called Umkhosi Wokweshwama, the holiday also finds the young men killing a black bull with their bare hands, interpreted by a Scottish historian as symbolizing past sacrifices of the king himself (a tradition which we might want to adopt ourselves, depending on how the 2024 Presidential Election shakes out).
In conclusion, as in all conclusions, nothing in this universe means anything. Like Orange Fanta, or Woody Allen’s 1979 film Manhattan, the story behind Thanksgiving is quite disturbing, but that doesn’t necessarily mean we can’t enjoy it on occasion. Yes, if you eat candied yams outside of this holiday, you are insane and should be cast into a volcano, but on behalf of all of us who find themselves without access to that weird aunt who persists in baking it every year, I say have at it. If you don’t swirl them together with the cranberries and gravy and find yourself destroying at least four additional servings of that sweet-n-sour soup o’ the season, well, I say you aren’t really American.