In the Blog
No Thanks: Why I Don’t Celebrate American Thanksgiving
Illustration by Erin McPhee
I stopped celebrating Thanksgiving, officially, when I was in college. Before that I’d been lukewarm on the holiday. Luckily for me, my family wasn’t overly enthusiastic about it either. While we occasionally traveled to see friends and a turkey did appear now and again, sometimes we just rented a movie, had pizza or Chinese food, and called it a night.
As soon as I was 18 and able to make my own decisions on when and where to celebrate holidays, I opted out of Thanksgiving completely. I learned very early on never to mention this to anyone. For many years I had a perfect excuse to avoid it: I had to work. I was involved in Broadway theatre, and they very often scheduled at least one performance on the holiday. Every now and then, one of my customers would ask me if I’d had a good Thanksgiving. When I told them that I didn’t observe it, they were put off. I still remember one man who silently backed away from me with a truly indescribable expression on his face.
Why the shock and horror? Thanksgiving is, for many, the quintessential American holiday. As per Hollywood, Hallmark and the status quo, it’s supposed to be a day when we gather with all our loving relatives to have a feast. Children in school are still taught that Thanksgiving commemorates peace and friendship between English Puritan Pilgrims and Indigenous tribes in what is now Massachusetts. Illustrations of “the first Thanksgiving dinner” usually show Indigenous people sitting at a long table in a forest clearing with the Pilgrims. The table is typically covered end to end with food, and everyone is smiling beatifically. I still remember making a Thanksgiving turkey craft in kindergarten or nursery school; the turkey’s body was a paper plate and its feathers were constructed from a cut-out tracing of my own hand.
Getting together on Thanksgiving can be a matter of convenience for families, regardless if they actually observe the day. Working Americans don’t get the same amount of leave as people employed in other Western countries. In fact, there isn’t any legislation that mandates that private employers in the United States have to give their workers any paid holidays. The only exceptions are a few cities, such as Los Angeles and New York, where employers are required to give their workers two or three paid sick days. We look in awe and envy at all those countries where four or five weeks of paid holiday time and generous sick leave are commonplace. For that matter, American businesses are way stingier with unpaid time off compared to their counterparts around the world, too. It’s not uncommon for employees to be fired for being out sick.
However, a majority of businesses do hold Thanksgiving to be sacrosanct, and will at the very least grant that day as unpaid leave to their workers. They might require employees to return to work on Friday, mind you, but they will let them off the hook on Thanksgiving itself. Thanksgiving is also a federal holiday, meaning that government offices, banks, the postal service and schools are closed. In recent years there’s been a push among retail businesses to stay open on the holiday; it’s been met with significant backlash. Some companies have responded by taking out advertisements to reassure the public that they will indeed be closed on Thanksgiving to give their employees time with their families.
With that in mind, Thanksgiving might be one of the only days during the year that every member of a family has time off from work and school. Under those circumstances, regardless of the historical context, it makes perfect sense that families and friends would take the opportunity to gather.
For me, though, the historical context has become important. When I was in high school, one of my aunts had a colleague with Indigenous heritage. He called Thanksgiving “Black Thursday,” and he wasn’t referring to the sales. I didn’t understand it at the time, but later I would discover that the United American Indians of New England consider Thanksgiving to be a national day of mourning, and hold a ceremony at Plymouth Rock every year. I would read more and discover that the English colonists in Massachusetts were anything but peaceful or friendly. Massachusetts governor John Winthrop called for a day of thanksgiving to celebrate the massacre of more than 700 Pequot men, women and children in 1637. It was one of countless atrocities committed against Indigenous tribes by the Puritans.
United States history books skip right over this. They also severely downplay the Puritans’ merciless persecution of anyone who did not share their religious views. These were the folks responsible for the Salem Witch Trials, during which they actually imprisoned a five year old and charged her with witchcraft. They also tortured and killed Quakers who dared to venture into their settlements.
Given all of the above, I don’t feel particularly comfortable commemorating anything the Puritans did in any way, shape or form. I don’t feel comfortable brushing aside yet another example of the horror that was inflicted on Indigenous communities for centuries. There are those who will tell me that I am being “politically correct.” It’s not “politically correct” to recognize confirmed historical incidents or to acknowledge that they were terrible. It’s simply telling the truth. There are those who might accuse me of trying to shut down the holiday. Nope, not at all. I’m just saying that I personally am not into it.
There are also those who might say that I should just look at the holiday as an opportunity to give thanks for my family, friends, and good moments in my life. I’m actually thankful for them every day, and I do my best to let them know all year round. I don’t need a special Thursday in November to remind me to count my blessings or let my loved ones know that I appreciate and care for them.
Everyone’s family is not a Norman Rockwell dream, and every Thanksgiving meal isn’t warm and fuzzy. Reality is often very different from the idealized version of the holiday that we’re fed by the media. Some individuals have abusive relatives and absolutely dread that annual family gathering. Western society usually tells us we’re supposed to forgive, forget and keep up family ties regardless of how severely we’ve been harmed. It also vilifies those who wish to distance themselves from blood relatives in the name of self-preservation. As a result, Thanksgiving might be a day of misery for many, during which they are subjected to more verbal, emotional or physical abuse from the relatives they cannot avoid. For every person who is enjoying Thanksgiving, there very well might be one who is praying for it to end quickly.
At this point, I personally treat Thanksgiving as just another day, with one exception: I refuse to shop. I do feel that American workers should have holidays off. I sometimes do “Turkey Trots” – 5K runs held very early on Thanksgiving morning – simply to get another race under my belt for the year. In my city there’s a Turkey Trot that holds a food drive and raises money to help the large homeless population in the area; I participate when I can.
When people wish me a happy Thanksgiving, I smile and thank them. I won’t get into it with anyone, nor will I tell anyone else what they should do. I fully recognize that most people do not feel the way I do about Thanksgiving. For myself, however, I say “no thanks” to the holiday and the history behind it.