Thanksgiving was always problematic. In 1959 it was particularly problematic. There was a Thanksgiving church service, because the church was a Congregational church – one of those churches “in the Reformed tradition that have a congregational form of church government and trace their origins mainly to Puritan settlers of colonial New England” – so some kid had to dress up as a Pilgrim and be the greeter for the day. And when you’re twelve years old you have no say in the matter. You do it.
And you feel like a fool. This wasn’t New England way back when. This was Pittsburgh. This was the big church downtown on Smithfield Street between Sixth and Strawberry Way that started out as a log cabin there in 1782 – by German Lutherans who argued with each other a lot. In 1787, William Penn’s heirs deeded to the church that property on Smithfield Street – now several city blocks – and the church grew and grew and grew, and grew rich. Finally, in 1925, the church affiliated with the National Council of Congregational Churches – the Pilgrim People – but in 1960 joined the United Church of Christ founded four years earlier – kind of a conglomerate – so this Pilgrim stuff faded away.
Bur what did the Pilgrims have to do with any of this? Add another oddity – a lot of us were there because the Slovak Congregational Church down the river had been torn down to make way for massive warehouses and we were there because the people downtown took us in. And there are no Slovak Pilgrims. But there was one long ago. He was feeling uncomfortable that day.
But it was a good story, as Charles Blow notes here:
When I was a child, Thanksgiving was simple. It was about turkey and dressing, love and laughter, a time for the family to gather around a feast and be thankful for the year that had passed and be hopeful for the year to come.
In school, the story we learned was simple, too: Pilgrims and Native Americans came together to give thanks.
We made pictures of the gathering, everyone smiling. We colored turkeys or made them out of construction paper. We sometimes had a mini-feast in class.
I thought it was such a beautiful story: People reaching across race and culture to share with one another, to commune with one another.
And it was nonsense:
Like so much of American history, the story has had its least attractive features winnow away – white people have been centered in the narrative and all atrocity has been politely papered over.
He does make that argument:
What is widely viewed as the first Thanksgiving was a three-day feast to which the Pilgrims had invited the local Wampanoag people as a celebration of the harvest.
About ninety came, almost twice the number of Pilgrims. This is the first myth: that the first Thanksgiving was dominated by the Pilgrim and not the Native American. The Native Americans even provided the bulk of the food, according to the Manataka American Indian Council.
This is counter to the Pilgrim-centric view so often presented. Indeed, two of the most famous paintings depicting the first Thanksgiving – one by Jennie Augusta Brownscombe and the other by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris – feature the natives in a subservient position, outnumbered and crouching on the ground on the edge of the frame.
The Pilgrims had been desperate and sick and dying but had finally had some luck with crops.
That was about it, but wait, there’s more:
As Peter C. Mancall, a professor at the University of Southern California wrote for CNN, Gov. William Bradford would say in his book “Of Plymouth Plantation,” which he began to write in 1630, that the Puritans had arrived in “a hideous and desolate wilderness, full of wild beasts and wild men.”
Mancall further explained that after the visits to the New World by Samuel de Champlain and Capt. John Smith in the early 1600s, “a terrible illness spread through the region” among the Native Americans. He continued: “Modern scholars have argued that indigenous communities were devastated by leptospirosis, a disease caused by Old World bacteria that had likely reached New England through the feces of rats that arrived on European ships.”
This weakening of the native population by disease from the new arrivals’ ships created an opening for the Pilgrims.
King James’ patent called this spread of disease “a wonderful Plague” that might help to devastate and depopulate the region.
In short, we wanted those people to die, all of those people, and Blow cites Grace Donnelly on that:
The celebration in 1621 did not mark a friendly turning point and did not become an annual event. Relations between the Wampanoag and the settlers deteriorated, leading to the Pequot War. In 1637, in retaliation for the murder of a man the settlers believed the Wampanoags killed, they burned a nearby village, killing as many as five hundred men, women, and children. Following the massacre, William Bradford, the Governor of Plymouth, wrote that for “the next 100 years, every Thanksgiving Day ordained by a Governor was in honor of the bloody victory,” thanking God that the battle had been won.
Ah, so, officially, and originally, Thanksgiving had to do with the Pequot War and giving thanks that we wiped out five hundred pesky men, women, and children in a single day in 1637 – not with a pleasant dinner.
But this is us – “The edge territory between white man’s civilization and the untamed natural world became a shared space of vast, clashing differences that led the U.S. government to authorize over 1,500 wars, attacks and raids on Indians, the most of any country in the world against its indigenous people.”
And then there’s Charles Blow:
I was blind, willfully ignorant, I suppose, to the bloodier side of the Thanksgiving story, to the more honest side of it. But I’ve come to believe that is how America would have it if it had its druthers: We would be blissfully blind, living in a soft world bleached of hard truth.
Charles Blow is black. Donald Trump is white. Max Boot knows where this is heading:
Do you plan to spend Thanksgiving cowering in the basement, taking surreptitious bites from a turkey hidden beneath the floorboards, terrified that at any moment the Political Correctness police might burst in and haul away your entire family for celebrating this traditional holiday? Are you worried that, once Thanksgiving is over, you might be exiled to a Political Correctness reeducation camp in Alaska if you are overheard saying “Merry Christmas” or seen displaying a crèche in your home?
If not, you haven’t heard about the war on Christmas – or the new war on Thanksgiving that President Trump announced Tuesday.
Yes, that was inevitable:
For years, Trump has been claiming that he is saving Christmas from the secular grinches, making it safe to say “Merry Christmas” rather than “Happy Holidays” again. Now, he claims that the liberal spoilsports are trying to eliminate Thanksgiving, too.
“You know, some people want to change the name ‘Thanksgiving.’ They don’t want to use the term ‘Thanksgiving.’ And that was true also with Christmas, but now everybody’s using Christmas again,” Trump said at a rally in Florida. “But now we’re going to have to do a little work on Thanksgiving. People have different ideas why it shouldn’t be called Thanksgiving, but everybody in this room I know loves the name Thanksgiving, and we’re not changing it.”
So, he, and he alone, will lead the brave charge to stop the overwhelming forces that are about to change the name of Thanksgiving any day now. The crowd went wild. Mac Boot retreated to being realistic:
On one level, this is simply absurd: This is like a politician defending “motherhood and apple pie” while congratulating himself on his political courage. No one is trying to prohibit anyone from saying “Merry Christmas”; the more inclusive “Happy Holidays” has simply gained more social favor in recent years because of the awareness that lots of Americans might be celebrating not Christmas but Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Diwali, or even Festivus. Late-night comedians have had a ball with Trump’s phony war on Christmas – and for good cause.
But once again there is a dark bit of history here too:
Snopes.com notes that one of the first to claim that Christmas was under siege was the notorious racist and anti-Semite Henry Ford. “Last Christmas most people had a hard time finding Christmas cards that indicated in any way that Christmas commemorated Someone’s Birth,” the automaker complained in 1921, going on to blame “Jewish opposition to Christmas, Easter and certain patriotic songs.”
Ford would go on to distribute free copies of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion everywhere and anywhere – the Jews were well on their way to taking over the world and they must be stopped – but then it was the communists:
During the McCarthy era of the 1950s, the far-right John Birch Society picked up the theme with a pamphlet called “There Goes Christmas?!” It warned that “one of the techniques now being applied by the Reds to weaken the pillar of religion in our country is the drive to take Christ out of Christmas – to denude the event of its religious meaning. … What they now want to put over on the American people is simply this: Department stores throughout the country are to utilize UN symbols and emblems as Christmas decorations.”
Boot finds that curious, but one thing leads to another:
I’m not aware of any department stores displaying United Nations rather than Christmas symbols, but that hasn’t stopped this enduring trope on the right. Snopes attributes the modern war on Christmas coinage to Peter Brimelow, the founder of Vdare, a noxious website described as “racist, anti-immigrant” by the Anti-Defamation League. In a 2000 post, Brimelow called “the War Against Christmas part of the struggle to abolish America.”
Bill O’Reilly, the now-disgraced Fox News anchor, took up the cry in 2004, claiming that Christmas was “under siege.” He attributed this to an “anti-Christian” blitz by “secular progressives” intent on foisting “gay marriage, partial birth abortion, euthanasia, legalized drugs, income redistribution through taxation, and many other progressive visions” on innocent, God-fearing Americans. The following year, O’Reilly’s colleague John Gibson published a book called “The War on Christmas: How the Liberal Plot to Ban the Sacred Christian Holiday is Worse Than You Thought.”
It did not take long for Trump – Fox News’s most faithful and credulous viewer – to join the “War on Christmas” as a full-throated combatant. By doing so, he gets to portray himself as a champion of white Christian America against insidious “Others” who, his followers fear, will destroy the country they know and love.
So it’s 1637 again, the Pequot War again. Wipe out those who would wipe us out. This is about worried white people:
Fueling these concerns are America’s changing demographics. Writing at Vox, Ezra Klein cites estimates that “when Barack Obama took office, 54 percent of the country was white and Christian; by the time he left office that had fallen to 43 percent. This is largely because young Americans are less white, and less Christian, than older Americans. Almost 70 percent of American seniors are white Christians, compared to only 29 percent of young adults.”
And one thing really does lead to another:
Trump’s white evangelical followers – the core of his base – are terrified that they are fast losing power in a country they once dominated. Hence their fanatical support for Trump as “the chosen one” and their disparagement of his critics as “demonic.”
A skilled demagogue, Trump unerringly taps into their anxiety with his risible claims about a war on Christmas and now a war on Thanksgiving.
Yeah, but it works. Every boomer on Facebook is now outraged. These people must be stopped! NO ONE will change the name of THIS holiday!
Who are these people? Kevin Drum sees this:
At a rally yesterday, President Trump gave his fans the red meat they craved: “You know, some people want to change the name Thanksgiving,” he said. “They don’t want to use the term Thanksgiving.”
This confused a lot of people, and we should get something straight right off the bat: no one wants to change the name of Thanksgiving. So where did this come from? Did Trump just make it up out of whole cloth?
Drum cites the Los Angeles Times:
A family learns to tell a new kind of Thanksgiving story… “It’s hard to say when or how it started, but but a few years ago my husband and I quit celebrating Thanksgiving… As immigrants from El Salvador and Armenia…, we know about the sorrow of having our pasts rewritten, our genocide and massacres, time and time again, neglected or denied.”
And then there’s the New York Times:
“Everything You Learned about Thanksgiving Is Wrong”… Plymouth, Mr. Loewen noted, was already a village with clear fields and a spring when the Pilgrims found it. “A lovely place to settle,” he said. “Why was it available? Because every single native person who had been living there was a corpse.” Plagues had wiped them out.
And there’s Huffington Post:
“Six Things Every Non-Native Should Do On Thanksgiving”… Of all the Native American communities whose distinct histories are worth knowing about, the Wampanoag tribe should be at the top of your list… Following the Wampanoag’s lead starts with learning about the “National Day of Mourning.” Since 1970, the Wampanoag and other tribes in the New England region have hosted a gathering on Thanksgiving Day at Plymouth Rock to recognize the holiday’s authentic history.
And there’s Vox:
“Trump’s made-up war on Thanksgiving, explained”… For all you Thanksgiving aficionados out there, nobody’s coming to take away your turkey… But that doesn’t mean it’s not worth considering that the holiday isn’t the same for everyone and for all communities. For Native Americans, the holiday can be a painful one, not a time to celebrate but instead a time to remember the atrocities they suffered when Europeans landed in America.
So it seems that Trump was sort of kind of right, but not really, not as Drum sees it:
Once you account for Trump’s bizarre habit of misunderstanding things and then making up vaguely related stories, it’s clear where his statement originates. There may be no organized effort to rename Thanksgiving, but there’s certainly an organized effort from some precincts on the left to make sure everyone understands that Thanksgiving is largely a celebration of white atrocity. This is pretty obvious grist for the white grievance mill that Trump uses for a brain, and its appeal to the white grievance base that attend his rallies is equally obvious.
It’s Charlottesville without the statues of Confederate generals – there are good people on both sides of any genocide – and everyone is seething in anger now, as Trump seems to have intended.
Kevin Drum is fine with that:
Americans should understand their own history better. That said, there’s a price to be paid for sticking up for the truth, and that price is hostility and bitterness from traditionalists and conservatives who consider this stuff not just ridiculous, but a personal attack on their own heritage and beliefs. In other words, it’s a microcosm of the price to be paid for being a liberal.
But no one is attacking anyone’s own heritage and beliefs. The verifiable facts of history are attacking their heritage and beliefs. And no one is trying to rename anything. And it may be time to let this go. The present matters more than the past. Be thankful for that.