An alternative celebration that provides all of the pie and none of the guilt, honoring two of the coolest Americans we know
All of the pie, none of the guilt. Photo by Jseattle via Flickr
For many Americans, Thanksgiving is a time for family, turkey, and pies. (Oh, the pies!) We know there’s some kind of story down there, below the stuffing—we learned the whitewashed one in elementary school about the Pilgrims and Wampanoag Native Americans in 1621, celebrating the friendship that allowed the settlers to survive their first winter. At this point for most Americans, that old tale is just ancillary to the festivities. For some, though, the history of Thanksgiving is inexorable from our latter-day revelries. And past the picture-book images from our childhood, that history is a minefield of doubt, mistrust, and charged connections to centuries of colonization, conflict, and genocide. It’s understandable that many now wish to mark the day with some festivities, but not to glorify such a fraught history. Yet alternative celebrations are few, far between, and face difficulty catching on in the mainstream. For those in search of an alternate holiday, here are a few suggestions.
It’s worth acknowledging that unlike other historically complicated holidays, nobody’s disputing that the first 1621 Thanksgiving occurred. (Many will dispute, though, whether it was the first Thanksgiving, an actual Thanksgiving, or one that actually looked like the Thanksgiving we celebrate now.) And although it remains unclear whether the Wampanoag attendees were invited or were gate-crashers and just how friendly interactions between the two communities were, Thanksgiving still marks an actual, peaceful feast. It’s not covering up some Thanksgiving Day Massacre. But regardless of how wonderful that original Thanksgiving was, it doesn’t change the fact that the dynamics between the Pilgrims and Wampanoag were defined by years of disease, slavery, and raids, and continued to devolve into bloodier conflicts afterwards. Viewed in isolation, it’s a day of unity and community, but in historical context, it’s a marker in the decline of Native American power and the spread of aggressive, chauvinistic, and bloody European rule.
There are two major approaches to this history. One suggests that the holiday’s history is irrelevant and that what matters is how we spend it now. Advocates of this approach might support redefining Thanksgiving as a day of service with charity fun runs or canned food drives, rather than the modern tradition of out-and-out gluttony. Another approach, pioneered in the 1970s by United American Indians of New England, rebrands Thanksgiving as a day of mourning and fasting. Neither of these alternatives is very useful for those who want to maintain the celebratory aspects of a harvest holiday in November, but pointedly rebuke or reject its connection to a dark chapter of human history.
Photo by Ed Schipul
There are surprisingly few alternative Thanksgivings out there. Most “alternative” ideas floating around just suggest celebrating the 1621 feast with a cocktail party or at a restaurant instead of at a traditional family dinner. This November 27th, it will even be hard to celebrate an alternate holiday, a la Liz Lemon’s Anna Howard Shaw Day, in an effort to subvert, redefine, or draw attention to the origins of Thanksgiving. That day, it turns out, was kind of a historically shitty day: In 1095, Pope Urban II declared the first crusade. In 1868, Lieutenant Colonel Armstrong Custer led a cavalry attack to massacre a Cheyenne reservation on the Washita River. In 1978, Dan White murdered San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk and Mayor George Moscone. The most November 27th has going for it are the commemoration of the deaths of Tamil Tiger fighters, a War of the Roses holiday in Lancashire, England, and something vague and amorphous known as Pins and Needles Day. None of that particularly lends itself to feasting, joy, or clearly distancing the day from suffering and strife.
But this year, you can partake in two fun, if more recent, reasons to celebrate. This Thanksgiving coincides with the birthdays of Bill Nye the Science Guy and experimental rock legend Jimi Hendrix. So rather than indulge a childhood fantasy version of American history, discount the past, or forsake community and joy for mourning, why not mark the birth of two modern luminaries whose works and memories can help to subvert the challenging associations of Thanksgiving? A celebration of Nye, devoted to education and (more recently) to confronting hard truths, and Hendrix, devoted to love, community, and building new forms of expression, could serve as a call to face our past and provide two inspiring examples for how to build our future. So this year, I’m going to go ahead and celebrate Hendrix-Nye Day, openly rejecting the Pilgrim myth, acknowledging and seeking to atone for the past, and embracing happiness, the potential of the future, and (of course) pies. Hopefully all those in search of a true Thanksgiving alternative might do the same.