Thanksgiving: historically haunting, personally pleasant

Caroline King

Caroline King
Caroline King

As school wraps up for the much anticipated fall/Thanksgiving break, all I can think about is turkey, pie and no homework. But each consecutive year, as I binge eat turkey and cranberry sauce on the third Thursday of November,  I can’t help but question, “what am I celebrating?”

While I appreciate the time off to spend with family, I can’t help feeling like Thanksgiving should be lumped into the growing category of meaningless holidays, somewhere alongside St. Patrick’s day and Groundhog day. Like many others, we have gotten so far away from what the holiday used to mean that it has become something else entirely; it has become an invented European American tradition about food and family, but what did it used to mean and what does it mean today for others?


Like many other kindergarteners, the version of Thanksgiving I first heard was the big dinner between the Plymouth pilgrims and Native Americans to celebrate their friendship, which is at least partially true. There was a dinner between the Wampanoag Indians and Plymouth settlers in 1621, but this wasn’t the feast that started it all.

The day of Thanksgiving we celebrate today was declared by William Bradford, governor of Plymouth  in his History of the Plymouth Plantation, as a day that “shall (henceforth) be a celebration and Thanksgiving for subduing the Pequots.” What many have thought to be a dinner to celebrate bounty, prosperity and a partnership with the local Wampanoag tribe beginning in 1637, was actually to celebrate the homecoming of Plymouth men from massacring 700 men, women and children of the Pequot tribe. To this day, Thanksgiving marks a day of mourning for the United American Indians of New England and many others who gather at a statue of Chief Massasoit of the Wampanoag every year to remember the Pequot.

Now, I would venture to guess most people today sitting at their dinner tables and/or in front of their respective Thanksgiving feasts would not be comfortable toasting to a massacre, because, well, that’s just inhumane. But more broadly, because Thanksgiving has become a holiday so far removed from its history that most people have created their own meanings.

For me, Thanksgiving has gradually become less about the fictional children’s story I was told of pilgrims and Indians, but rather much-appreciated time to sit down and cherish the people I love. I can’t claim to know what Thanksgiving means to others, but I do know this: despite what Thanksgiving has come to be today, it also marks the slaughter of a people who deserve reverence and remembrance. So whatever you do this Thanksgiving, whether that’s eating copious amounts of food, watching football or just enjoying a day off, take time to remember what happened, and why we “celebrate.”

Collegian Columnist Caroline King can be reached at or on Twitter @cgking7.