The True Meaning of Thanksgiving


Thanksgiving is a strange holiday. The U.S. has two main national holidays: Independence Day and Thanksgiving. Compared to the explosive patriotism of Independence Day, Thanksgiving is rather quiet. But it’s no less political. What makes Thanksgiving so challenging is that it creates an ideological link between the genuinely warm feelings of family and our unsavory national history. I think we should give thanks for the good things we have and spend time with family. But when the background to family time is the U.S. state, it reinforces what Michael Billig calls “banal nationalism”. In other words, we tacitly reinforce the idea that the state exists for us and protects us – even though the “us” that it protects is clearly not all of us, but only some of us.

Yet, Thanksgiving is not only about national history. The idea of giving thanks for a seasonal harvest is one that dates back to ancient civilizations. Giving thanks for the season was practiced by Europeans long before it became a national event, and long before it was associated with the “Pilgrims'” (i.e. colonizers) survival in the rugged New World (i.e. depending on the few Native Americans left on the continent to help feed them). Therefore, I think we should not be overly-enthusiastic about the national history part of Thanksgiving, nor should we see Thanksgiving too narrowly as being a celebration of Native American genocide. The two became linked in U.S. history, to be sure – but it needn’t be so.

There is another way to think about Thanksgiving. It seems to me that modern consumer-based capitalism has brought with it all the more individualistic and self-directed way of interpreting our lives. A main theme of this blog is encouraging us to think beyond our “self” as the unit of analysis. If “thankfulness” means recognizing that we do not – by ourselves – create our own history, and if Thanksgiving is a time to recognize this simple but profound truth, then Thanksgiving is a celebration worth keeping. But this “thankful awareness” should be accompanied by a “critical recognition” that others may well have been disadvantaged in the creation of our own advantage. We should commit to keeping “thankfulness awareness” and “critical recognition” in tension with one another.

If Thanksgiving is an opportunity to do this in the community of family and friends, then it’s a worthwhile occasion indeed.

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