Scrap Thanksgiving?

29 November 2017

Happy belated Thanksgiving! Or bah humbug? I always find myself deeply ambivalent around the holiday season.

On the one hand, Thanksgiving can be a joyous celebration of family and community. Family connections are inherently valuable, and since social isolation is dangerous, this gives us all the more reason to celebrate and strengthen them.

On the other hand, Thanksgiving festivities can serve to cover up, and encourage, ongoing injustice. American children are told a sanitized story about the first Thanksgiving, in which Native Americans share a peaceful harvest meal with the English Pilgrims (after helpfully teaching the Pilgrims to feed themselves in the New World). This story is true as far as it goes, but omits the less savory details of colonialism.  

The man most famous for helping the settlers, Tisquantum (also known as Squanto), was kidnapped by an English explorer, Thomas Hunt, six years before their arrival. Hunt attempted to sell him into slavery, but he escaped and returned home, only to discover that while he was gone, his entire village had been wiped out by an epidemic. European settlement was disastrous for indigenous Americans, who continue to face injustice in the form of poverty, mass incarceration, sexual assault, and continued theft of land and resources, in the face of public indifference. Taking these facts into account, the happy version of the story starts to look less like a way of bringing people together to live in harmony, and more like whitewashing.

Thanksgiving is also an unhappy day for animals. Blogger Harish at the vegan blog Counting Animals uses USDA statistics from 2015 to estimate that we kill about 37 million turkeys each Thanksgiving—most of them factory farmed under horrible conditions.   

How should we understand Thanksgiving, then? Is it a wholesome celebration of family and connectedness, or a cover-up for continued injustice? Could it somehow be both?

Philosophers draw a useful distinction between accidental and essential properties. Accidental properties ones that can, at least in principle, be lost or gained. Your hair color is an accidental property, because you can dye your hair. Your having (or lacking) older siblings is an accidental property, because while it’s fixed now, you could have had more or fewer older siblings and still been you.  

Essential properties, on the other hand, are properties that a thing must have in order to exist. Some philosophers think your family origin is essential to you: someone born of different parents might have looked very similar to you, but they would have had different genes, and they would have been a different person. Others think that rationality is an essential property of humans: an animal like you, but incapable of rational thought, wouldn’t really be you—at best, it would be an empty husk of you.

Now we can ask: which properties are essential to Thanksgiving, and which are merely accidental? If Thanksgiving is essentially linked to oppression, then we should cancel it and replace it with another holiday. But if its links to oppression are merely accidental, we might hope to keep it and change it for the better.

I personally lean towards the view that most things, including holidays, have very few essential properties. You could throw a vegan Thanksgiving feast with sweet potatoes, cranberry sauce, egg-free stuffing, and seitan roast; that wouldn’t make it any less of a Thanksgiving feast. You could tell an honest version of the Thanksgiving story, reshaping the narrative.

Even if the worst properties of Thanksgiving are accidental, that doesn’t mean that ignoring them will cause them to go away. Accidental properties can stick with a thing (or a holiday) for its entire lifespan. And if an accidental property is bad enough and hard enough to change, it can still render its bearer unsalvageable—a casserole that is not essentially poisoned can still be poisoned enough to be inedible. But if I am right, and the worst parts of Thanksgiving are accidental, it means that there is at least the theoretical possibility of redemption. If I am wrong, and the worst parts of Thanksgiving are essential to it, this doesn’t mean that family holidays are doomed—we could always choose to eliminate Thanksgiving and create a better, more just holiday in its place.

Image by Tyler Amato

Comments (2)

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Wednesday, November 29, 2017 -- 12:40 PM

Thanksgiving? Bah? Humbug?

Thanksgiving? Bah? Humbug? Why then? Yearly events that have been observed by countless individuals over some period of time seem to periodically generate such sentiments. I do not avidly participate in all observable holiday celebrations. Not because of any bias (cognitive, or otherwise), but because I do not feel compelled to do things just because family, friends, or strangers may judge me (or my motivations) badly. I'm just no longer bound by the notion that I ought to patronize other people or their enthusiasm for these time-honored activities. Having said that, I neither praise nor disparage those who are enthusiastic celebrants. Holidays (sacred or secular) make people forget for awhile the ferocity of the world and the tenacity of hate. If this is illusion, let them have their brief respite. It does me no harm. Besides this, I have no qualms about seeing people behave with equanimity towards one another. Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night! Newman.

Tony's picture


Wednesday, January 3, 2018 -- 11:13 AM

It is sad to think about all

It is sad to think about all the bad things associated with Thanksgiving. It was terrible what happened to those indigenous Americans back in those days, but no one is alive today from that time? Are we to blame the great, great, great grandchildren of those people for their mistakes? Sure, let us recognize it and acknowledge it, but we also must see the good in celebrating a holiday with friends and family. Nothing can fix the past, but we sure can improve today and the future.