What is Thanksgiving? Children in the US are taught it is a day to celebrate the friendship between Native American tribes and the first English settlers. Today, I want to talk about the real history – the dark story of war, disease, and the destruction of Native American society. So… let’s discuss the story of Thanksgiving and learn some new vocabulary at the same time!
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To celebrate (v) – to take part in special enjoyable activities in order to show that a particular occasion is important
We always celebrate his birthday by going out to dinner
Ubiquitous (adj) – seeming to be everywhere
Mobile phones are now ubiquitous across all ages
Myth (n) – a commonly believed but false idea
Statistics disprove the myth that small people are angrier
Pilgrim (n) – a member of the group of English people who sailed to America and began living in Plymouth, Massachusetts, in 1620
The Pilgrims left England in search of religious freedom
Feast (n) – a special meal with very good food or a large meal for many people
The King held a feast to celebrate his victory
Alliance (n) – an agreement to work with someone else to try to achieve the same thing
The two groups formed an alliance against the government
Devastating (adj) – causing a lot of damage or destruction
The drought has had devastating consequences
To re-evaluate (v) – to judge or calculate the quality, importance, amount, or value of something again, for a second, third, etc. time
The company is re-evaluating its decision to allow workers flexible hours
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Every November, millions of people in the United States of America gather together to celebrate a holiday known as Thanksgiving. This year it will take place on Thursday November 24th – and people will spend time with their friends and families, eat food together (usually Turkey, potatoes, and pumpkin pie), share what they are thankful for, watch American football, and prepare for the black Friday sales.
Americans have been celebrating Thanksgiving as a national holiday for over 150 years, and the origins date back to the beginnings of the European settlement! The traditions today are quite different from the past, but I’ll talk about the history in a few minutes.
First, I want to tell you all a little about modern day Thanksgiving in the USA. Some of you may have never heard of this holiday, and many of you may have heard about it but have no idea what it actually is!
According to popular opinion, the first Thanksgiving took place in 1621. Colonists from Europe, who had arrived in the area now known as Plymouth, and the Wampanoag native American tribe shared a meal together – and this is considered to be the first “thanksgiving” celebrate in the US.
For the next 200 years, thanksgiving days were celebrated by individual states, but there was no national or official public holiday. This was until 1863, when Abraham Lincoln decided to make Thanksgiving an official holiday across the country which would be celebrated every November!
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Modern Thanksgiving Celebrations!
Today, Thanksgiving is probably very different from the original gatherings hundreds of years ago. It is a celebration focused on food, cooking, and spending time with family and friends. Dishes like mashed potatoes, pumpkin pie, stuffing, and cranberry sauce are some of the typical foods you might find on the Thanksgiving table.
However, the best-known Thanksgiving food is turkey. Turkey is so ubiquitous that Thanksgiving has been nicknamed turkey day – and around 90% of Americans eat turkey on the day. One of the more interesting ceremonies around the holiday is the presidential turkey pardoning. For the past 60 or so years, the president of United States has officially “pardoned” a turkey – allowing it to live on a farm for the rest of its life rather than be eaten on the day
There are some other famous Thanksgiving traditions in the US. It is common for people to volunteer, provide food for poor communities, and do other forms of charity work. People will often watch American football, or the NFL, on TV!
And there are always parades around the country – the most famous being the New York City Thanksgiving Day parade. Millions of people watch the parade in person and on TV, with performers, celebrities, balloons, and marching bands walking through the streets of the city!
The Myth of Thanksgiving
Ok… so that’s enough about the modern part of Thanksgiving. If you are a regular listener, you know I’m far more interested in talking about the controversial issues, explaining the history of events, and making you all think in English!
The main reason I wanted to record an episode on Thanksgiving is to talk about the myth of Thanksgiving. Children across the US are taught a story at school about the first Thanksgiving – a story about friendship and kindness shown by the pilgrims from Europe and the Native Americans.
But the truth is much darker and the context behind the story is far more uneasy. So… today I am going to introduce the myth taught to children across the US, and then look at the truth behind the famous holiday.
The Popular Story of Thanksgiving
What is the Thanksgiving story commonly taught to Americans?
In the 17th century, England did not allow people to have religious freedom. Citizens of England were required to join the Church of England and could not practice any other form of religion or Christianity openly.
Religious groups who did not want to follow the Church of England began to try to leave England – many moved to the Netherlands who had a much more tolerant society at the time. Another group decided to take another approach – move to the “New World.”
The “New World” was the term Europeans had given the continents of North and South America. Its unfair to call it the new world, considering people had lived all across the land for thousands of years. But for Europeans, it was a newly discovered and unknown place.
Importantly, it represented freedom for these religious groups – freedom to create their own society and live following their own beliefs and rules. 102 passengers boarded a ship called the Mayflower in the town of Plymouth and set sail across the Atlantic Ocean. The journey lasted 66 long and uncomfortable days.
The Pilgrims had intended to land by the Hudson River, but actually ended up further north in modern day Massachusetts – and there they began to build a new village called Plymouth. However, only half of the original passengers survived the first winter. The majority had stayed on board the Mayflower ship over the winter and struggled to survive the harsh conditions and poor food.
In March, the Pilgrims moved to the mainland where they met a member of a local Native American tribe. The P ilgrims were shocked when the Native American greeted them in English, and returned a few days later with Squanto, a member of the Pawtuxet tribe, who was fluent in English due to being kidnapped by an English sailor many years earlier.
The Pilgrims formed an alliance with the Wampanoag tribe, and Americans are taught that the friendly locals taught the struggling pilgrims how to survive in the new world! In November 1621 the Pilgrims invited the members of the tribe to join them for a celebratory feast – the Pilgrims had just successfully harvested corn for the first time.
The tradition of “thanksgiving” continued in the Northeast of America – the first presidents issued Thanksgiving proclamations and in 1817, New York became the first state to make Thanksgiving an official holiday. However, it remained a tradition of the north – the southern US states did not celebrate Thanksgiving.
Abraham Lincoln, in 1863, made Thanksgiving a national holiday and it has been celebrated on the fourth Thursday of November ever since (apart from in 1939 when Franklin D Roosevelt tried to move Thanksgiving to a week earlier).
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Real History of Thanksgiving
That was the story taught to most American children… but what is the real story? Is everything they are taught true?
Let’s start with some of the facts – were the Pilgrims in 1621 the first to hold a Thanksgiving celebration in the US? Probably not.
70 years before the Pilgrims even departed England, a group of Spanish settlers in modern day Florida held a meal with the Seloy tribe – they apparently ate pork and beans, and had a religious ceremony. And in 1619, another group of settlers held a Thanksgiving feast to celebrate their arrival.
The modern form of Thanksgiving is very different to the first celebrations held in the early 17th century – Thanksgiving was originally a religious day of prayer and observation. The Pilgrims would probably have seen 1623 as the first real Thanksgiving (as it was a day on religious prayer), while others say a celebration in 1637 may be the start of the modern tradition.
This 1637 celebration also represents the darker side of Thanksgiving history… a side that is often not talked about. In 1637 the governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony ordered a day of celebration and feasting. Why? Well to celebrate colonial soldiers murdered hundreds of members of the Peqot tribes – hundreds of Native American men, women, and children killed by the people who stole their land.
This is the dark context to Thanksgiving – the myth, the story, told to children across the US is that the Pilgrims and Native Americans formed a friendly relationship, learned from each other, and shared a nice meal together. The truth is that the arrival of Europeans resulted in wars, diseases, and the genocide of entire groups of people.
For example, the Wampanoag tribe are the group believed to have joined the first Thanksgiving celebration. The Pilgrims were not the first people to meet the Wampanoag – they had been involved in conflicts with Europeans for over 100 years (and the reason they had English speakers was due to tribe members being made slaves). The chief of the tribe formed an alliance with the European settlers – they agreed to fight together against the French and other Native American tribes.
It is quite likely that the idea for a feast was not the idea of the Europeans… but of the Wampanoag leader. His tribe was weakened by years of war and disease (both caused by European contact) and likely wanted allies and support to defend his land in the future.
This alliance did not last long. As more English people arrived and the settlement grew larger, the Wampanoag people were unhappy with their treatment and the influence of Europeans in their society. Europeans had introduced new diseases to the Americas – the Native Americans had no immunity to many common illnesses in Europe. The “Indian fever,” as it was known, had killed up to 90% of all Native Americans before the Pilgrims even arrived on the continent.
Towards the end of the 17th century, relations between the Wampanoag and the European settlers were so bad that war broke out. The chief of the tribe was known to the Pilgrims as “King Philip”, and after his men were executed by the settlers for killing a Christian Native American, a devastating war began.
According to historians, 30% of all English settlers and 50% of all Native Americans in the region could have died in the war. The chief of the Wampanoag tribe had his head cut off – the settlers put his head on a spike in the ground and displayed it for 25 years as a warning to other tribes.
This may sound like an extreme event but there were countless wars and battles between Native Americans and early settlers. Most people don’t know anything about these wars – they are rarely taught and mentioned. But how do you think Europeans took of the continent of America? There were a few deals and negotiations… but it was mainly through war, attacks, and battles. Disease also helped.
The story that Thanksgiving was a symbol of peaceful cooperation and kindness at the beginning of European settlement is not accurate. It was an exception… the truth is much more violent and dark.
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Should Americans Celebrate Thanksgiving?
Should people in the US today celebrate Thanksgiving? Well, people have been re-evaluating the holiday for a long time – but especially in recent years.
For decades, Native Americans have held days of mourning on the day – describing it not as a celebration but as a tragedy. In Plymouth, Massachusetts, members of the Wampanoag and other Native American groups hold prayers and march through the town every year.
And people across the country have been considering how best to talk about the history – it is important to teach the reality of war and violence, rather than lie about friendliness.
But should people still celebrate? I’m personally not sure. The tradition is so established that it would be difficult to end it – but what I think people need to do is learn about the history and understand the brutal reality.
Today, I’ve tried to introduce Thanksgiving to all of you! Rather than just talking about the traditions, I wanted to explain the history and myths surrounding the day.
History is written by the victors – powerful societies get to teach and describe events in their own way. While Thanksgiving today is known as a feast day, the history of brutality and wars is often forgotten.
What do you think? Should people still celebrate Thanksgiving? What is your country’s most important holiday or celebration?