The Contradictory Holiday of Thanksgiving

by Nora Rivera-Larkin, December 6, 2021

While the basis for Thanksgiving is rooted in the concept of giving back and giving thanks to the many positives in our lives as well as a way to reflect on the year, this holiday also comes with some very contradictory underlying tones. The holiday of Thanksgiving serves as a way to gloss over the struggles of many people throughout the years. The pain of the Civil War and the history of slavery, the ignored role of women in the household, and its’ use of reinforcing patriotism and distracting many from the deep sociological issues in America, are some ways that the holiday has been used to promote an exalted idea of the United States and its history. 

The first Thanksgiving, as an official national holiday, is a prime example of how the holiday has been used to smooth over the troubles of a nation. In his “Proclamation of Thanksgiving,” President Lincoln said,

“Peace has been preserved with all nations, order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere except in the theatre of military conflict…”

(Lincoln).

This excerpt from Lincoln’s speech shows that the establishment of the holiday was based on the concept of solidifying this idea of unity into a national holiday on the backdrop of a war that tore apart the country. Though it has a positive message and meaning, it hides the intensity of the war and the issues still rampant within the country such as institutionalized racism, the masses of freed yet unsupported slaves, and the continued resistance of the South. In a review of the holiday, history scholar Elizabeth Pleck writes, “Thanksgiving did not unify a war-torn nation, but the holiday probably did help unify the Northern side during the Civil War” (Pleck). While this new national holiday may have been an opportunity for renewed strength and power in the North, it was a conceptual holiday that paid no dues to the ongoing suffering throughout the country and did not serve as the day of remembrance and unification it was supposedly for. 

As time went on, Thanksgiving became more widely celebrated and became a day for relaxation and a positive outlook on the hard work of the past year. But it had some very sexist underlying tones: “As women in the kitchen washed the dishes, and men listened to the game, one could recognize that women (willingly) gave up their leisure, and that men and children benefitted” (Pleck). Though this situation may not be as true in current times given the many changes in the “traditional” American household, the underlying tone may still hold true. A day for celebration and relaxation is often a double-edged sword; the holiday was built on the backs of someone – whether it be a political purpose or a sexist approach – and it continues to ignore its origins and the continued work of the less fortunate. It pays no real remembrance to the work of many and has often become an egotistical holiday geared towards the more fortunate and to the men of the country. 

The final target of this holiday is children. In schools, the idea of patriotism and a sort of “happy past” is widely promoted. Oftentimes, history lessons are smoothed over to protect the image of the country and to hide its ugly truths and origins. As a land of immigrants, people saw it imperative to get children, especially immigrant children, to believe in this idea of a “golden country.” Pleck continues to analyze the teaching of this holiday in schools, writing,

The schools recognized that they had to develop an emotional bond between the immigrant and the nation, a love of country… the home was where the deepest feelings of patriotism were conveyed. Thus, the home celebration of holidays needed to be encouraged to reinforce the patriotism”

(Pleck).

Again, the holiday is twisted into a political tactic, erasing its supposed true origins and elements to form a specific idea of patriotism and unity in a child’s mind and then their home. It becomes an ignorance of struggles, of past truths, and the reinforcement of this glossy, picture-perfect holiday used to conceal its true intentions. 

It cannot be forgotten that the true pillar of the Thanksgiving holiday has been political strategy, whether to reinforce the idea of unity even in the face of war, to make an example of the power structure and imbalance between genders in the household, or to become a way to spread an idea of patriotism in the country. Thanksgiving has many ugly truths and it is important that these be taught, without the edited versions that conceal the truths of this nation. It is only when these truths are taught, when we confront our history and understand that it has been painful and unfair to so many people in this country, that we can move forward and make proper change, and hopefully celebrate a future Thanksgiving that not only gives remembrance to our most recent past year but also to the ones far before it and those who have been hurt by this holiday’s history. 


Works Cited

Lincoln, Abraham. “Proclamation of Thanksgiving.” Abraham Lincoln Online, 2018, http://www.abrahamlincolnonline.org/lincoln/speeches/thanks.htm. 

Pleck, Elizabeth. “The Making of the Domestic Occasion: The History of Thanksgiving in the United States.” Journal of Social History, vol. 32, no. 4, 1999, pp. 773–89. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/3789891.

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