I do a lot of explaining. Voluntarily, mostly because I get the notion that Americans Do Things and don’t explain them most of the time, or when they do it’s patronising, and that’s crap. So when I’m asked, or when something comes up, I explain, trying to do it without ‘splaining, except for when people talk trash about American football. (Hint: Don’t.)
Lately, I’ve been asked to explain Thanksgiving.
This has happened more than once, actually–five or six times–and it’s always a little difficult to do. People here know of Thanksgiving because it’s so embedded in American culture that there are tons and tons of throwaway references, but there aren’t really that many films about Thanksgiving. (Probably because the theme of dysfunctional family has already been done for Christmas, and who would watch a film about ‘eating a lot, talking with the fam, and falling asleep in front of the football game’?) Americans don’t need Thanksgiving explained, it’s universal, so mentions on American telly are simply in this sort of tacit context.
Truth is, Thanksgiving is actually really hard to explain without sounding either corny or dull, neither of which really conveys the cultural significance of the holiday. While I’m planning on doing a Thanksgiving guide as a class project, I figured I might as well get some thoughts down in text format, for the folks at home, not only to enlighten non-American readers, but to sort of deconstruct Thanksgiving as modern event for USA people too. You might learn something.
Please note: What Thanksgiving can mean in terms of colonialism and racism could be a whole book, and I don’t feel I can speak adequately on the subject. But at the same time, I don’t want to skip over it entirely; here is a historical overview by Karl Jacoby, and a point by point breakdown of the dominant narrative by Judy Dow (Abenaki) and Beverly Slapin on Oyate; additional guides to deconstructing the narrative for children can be found here at Resist Racism. Thanksgiving in its current form is primarily the result of 19th century advocacy by Sarah Josepha Hale…for better or worse.
What I do feel I can talk about is how, in a very general sense, Thanksgiving is celebrated in the US. Please note that this does not address everyone’s experience of Thanksgiving: it merely provides some tangible background information for the dominant paradigm as seen in the media. Wikipedia’s version of things really doesn’t provide a good breakdown, in my mind. So here’s a timeline, with the salient overall points at the end.
More behind the cut.