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What Should We Tell Children About Thanksgiving?

Image courtesy of Flickr user Rev. Santino, CC licensed

I was told, as a child, that Thanksgiving is a celebration of the first gathering of the Pilgrims and the Indians, a bountiful feast marking the beginning of this beautiful friendship. I have memories of being forced to wear a paper pilgrim bonnet and sing a long, drawn out ballad about the Mayflower, Plymouth Rock, and Squanto with my classmates.

But as I got a little older, I learned that it wasn’t quite so. Settlers came armed and ready to fight, seeking the head of the local Indian leader. They built a high wall around their community to keep the Indians out. The Indians died of disease and gunshots, and much of their land was taken or destroyed. Where was this version when I was rocking back and forth singing about how the pilgrims “came to dock! On Plymouth Rock!”?

I’m not saying that first graders should be subjected to all of this. But what should we really tell children about Thanksgiving? Is Thanksgiving a good opportunity to introduce a darker, albeit more accurate version of history? Should Thanksgiving be a national day of mourning, as Oyate suggests? (Personally, I don’t think so.)

Most cultures have celebrations for giving thanks, and I’m glad that we have one, too. I saw a sign in a store this morning that said “Gratitude Elevates Us All” – and it does. I’m looking forward to giving thanks and spending time with my family this year, but I won’t really be invoking the pilgrim spirit when I do it.

What do you think?