Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Thanksgiving, an Ancient Harvest Festival Reappropriated

Just now I overheard someone try to be politically correct about the history of Thanksgiving by commenting on the poor Native Americans and how we wronged them, so I want to correct some historical inaccuracies here--Thanksgiving is an ancient holiday and has nothing to do with pilgrims or Native Americans. It was an attempt by the US government's to reappropriate a holiday that had been going on all over Europe for a long time--the autumn harvest festival.

The harvest festival was traditionally held on the first full moon after the fall equinox, the "harvest moon." This happened in early October. Which is why the original date of Thanksgiving was in October, not November. Which is why Canadians still celebrate in October. And why I attend a Swedish harvest festival every year around the equinox.

It makes perfect sense for a bunch of farmers to get together and give thanks for their harvest and everything else going right in their lives while feasting on their bountiful, autumn harvest-foods. It makes perfect sense for some of the people who came to America to also recognize the Native Americans who helped them survive here while they were celebrating their fall harvests that they would have celebrated anyway. It makes perfect sense that the government, wanting to have a very patriotic country, reappropriated the summer solstice celebrations (4th of July) and the fall harvest festival by adding a story that was perhaps only true for very few. If the Christians hadn't so successfully reappropriated the winter solstice (Christmas) and spring equinox (Easter) already, those would have become patriotic holidays as well. The government would have found some historical thing that happened around those times that fit into how people were already celebrating those holidays, and totally exaggerated it's importance. Perhaps the Civil War was really the Egg War somehow, and we remember that war every year by hiding eggs. And the winter solstice (aka the festival of light) was really a remembrance of that war when the light was so important that it never went out....

Most of us today are not farmers and we can eat yams and cranberries the entire year, so this holiday is a little silly in that it has nothing to do with our actual lives. We can make it just about gratitude, the day of the year we sit around and try to force ourselves to feel grateful, but without the true connection of a harvest to our actual lives, Thanksgiving is just another meaningless day (with tasty food) that we try to force meaning into and wonder why it is just a little empty and forced.

Or to put it another way: a holiday about gratitude is a holiday celebrating an abstract idea. When our concrete reality (the harvest) actually reflected that idea, it felt meaningful. Today we celebrate an abstract idea that does not reflect our concrete reality, so it cannot feel as meaningful. To be meaningful a holiday would have to celebrate something concrete that our senses were actually perceiving and tie that into a meaningful abstraction that we wanted to celebrate.

But anyway, man who annoyed me this evening, please don't pretend that by talking about dead Native Americans you are correcting the historical inaccuracies surrounding this holiday. Being An American used to be about pride in conquering other people, now it's about guilt for having conquered them. You are a good little American spouting what your government wants you to spout--the story changed but the meaning of the holiday--AMERICA!--hasn't. The truth is, Thanksgiving is not about being an American at all and guilt for the Native Americans just keeps us pretending it is an American holiday.