The jubilant holiday of Thanksgiving has a history that’s frequently connected to warfare – and that’s not counting the family political discussions between dinner courses.
A group of Pilgrims and the Wampanoag tribe broke bread together in a 1621 feast in the Plymouth Colony of New England. The Wampanoag leader, known as Massasoit, had taught the Pilgrims to plant corn, the story goes, and the Indians and New World settlers shared a festival of rejoicing that spanned three days. The good feelings did not last, however.
A generation later, Massasoit’s son, called King Philip by the English, led an Indian assault on the settlers that was known as King Philip’s War. At least one-tenth of the colonists were killed and thousands of Indians died or were captured.
In the 19th century came the Civil War, America’s most devastating conflict. Three months after the Battle of Gettysburg, President Abraham Lincoln issued a proclamation in October 1863 declaring Thanksgiving a national holiday. States had previously chosen their own days to observe Thanksgiving, and Lincoln wanted a single day of unity to help nurse the psychic wounds of a nation torn apart by war.
There are U.S. soldiers fighting foreign conflicts today, but our nation is largely at peace, giving Americans a major reason for gratitude this day. Steady economic growth and low unemployment mean prosperity for many, although many are still left out.
Thanksgiving is perhaps our most unifying national holiday. It is nonpartisan and nondenominational. The Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade is seldom delayed by protesters. There is little chance of anyone being offended when you wish them a happy Thanksgiving.
There is always the chance of an awkward moment around the holiday table when family members or friends, perhaps after a cocktail or two, decide to talk about politics, the third rail of dinner conversation. Fortunately, the holiday also provides us with enough distractions to steer things back onto the safety of common ground.
For many in Western New York, the day will start with the Turkey Trot, the road race down Delaware Avenue that’s as much about wearing colorful costumes as it is about burning calories.
Then there are the special holiday programs and TV marathons to keep us amused as we fight to stay awake while the turkey’s tryptophan seeps into our bloodstreams.
Pro football takes over many TV screens for much of the day, and this year our own Buffalo Bills will play in front of a national TV audience against the Dallas Cowboys.
Thanksgiving is a time when many reach out to the less fortunate, making donations or giving their own labor to food pantries, or perhaps just inviting someone they have just met to their holiday table.
It’s also a good time to think about Native Americans, whose ancestors were part of the first gathering at Plymouth. The history of European settlers colonizing their land makes their relationship to Thanksgiving complicated, to say the least. That history cannot be undone, but non-Natives can make an effort to educate themselves about it.
One place to start is the Seneca-Iroquois National Museum in Salamanca, which celebrates the culture and heritage of the Seneca Nation. The museum is closed on Thanksgiving and some other holidays, but otherwise open seven days a week.
If family conflicts or logistical challenges get in the way of gatherings with relatives, there is always “Friendsgiving,” the custom of celebrating with pals rather than kinfolk. An old Johnny Carson joke describes the appeal of this 21st century phenomenon.
“Thanksgiving is an emotional holiday,” Carson said. “People travel thousands of miles to be with people they only see once a year. And then discover once a year is way too often.”
But never mind. Happy Thanksgiving.