Thanksgiving Dinner Table Conversation

a turkey feather

Here is a topic to discuss with your family this Thanksgiving: the origins of Thanksgiving. While it is true that Lincoln proclaimed Thanksgiving a federal holiday in 1863, the tradition of Thanksgiving dated back centuries earlier; it had, until Lincoln, been celebrated independently as state and local holidays throughout the country.

The first official to declare a day of thanksgiving was John Winthrop, the third Governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. He made this declaration in 1637 in celebration of the victorious return of men from the Pequot War in Connecticut. Another colonial settler from the time, William Bradford, left a historical account of exactly what that victory was like:

Those that escaped the fire were slain with the sword, some hewed to pieces, others run through with their rapiers, so as they were quickly dispatched and very few escaped. It was conceived that they thus destroyed about 400 at this time. It was a fearful sight to see them thus frying in the fire and the streams of blood quenching the same, and horrible was the stink and scent thereof; but the victory seemed a sweet sacrifice, and they gave the praise thereof to God, who had wrought so wonderfully for them, thus to enclose their enemies in their hands and give them so speedy a victory over so proud and insulting an enemy.

The outcome was the further massacre of a Pequot people who had already been massacred and plagued by colonial settlers from a population of 16,000 down to 3,000. The immediate aftermath of this was that Pequot survivors were enslaved, tortured, raped, murdered, and denied the basic human rights afforded to white settlers. Some were sent to England, some to the Caribbean, and some remained in the colonies. The sustained aftermath is that the population of the Pequot people continued to decline for centuries, and reached a low of 66 in 1910.

The call for a day set aside for thanksgiving spread throughout the colonies, and eventually evolved into the Thanksgiving we know today. But these colonists were not giving thanks for food; they were giving thanks for genocide. Declarations in the colonies over the years echoed that of John Winthrop, where days of public thanksgiving were declared for such reasons as:

there now scarce remains a name or family of them [the Indians] but are either slain, captivated, or fled.

This Thanksgiving, consider talking about what a fucking insult the entire holiday is in the first place. Sure, everyone likes a harvest festival, and everyone likes sitting around eating, but this is not what people were actually giving thanks for, and some of the people who did not get to enjoy a feast in the autumn of 1637 were the thousands of Native Americans who had been massacred by the very colonists who were celebrating their deaths.

This Thanksgiving, consider celebrating Unthanksgiving or participating in the National Day of Mourning. Or just celebrate the fall harvest. You can still stuff your face with friends and family, and you can still try to convince your uncle about the evils of capitalism, but you don’t have to participate in or turn a blind eye to the whitewashing of American history in doing so.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store