Nov 212011
 

Did your child have a Halloween party this year? Of course, right? Well, don’t be so sure there will be a feast, party, or even a discussion prior to Thanksgiving at the same school this year. What? That can’t be possible? Have a talk with your child’s teacher, as well as other parents at the school, and you may be in for a rude awakening. After a bit of research, I have come to the conclusion that the celebration of Thanksgiving in our schools is undergoing a fundamental transformation. As with President’s Day, it is becoming a time that is more focused on vacations and sales rather than an opportunity to educate our young citizens about their common heritage and identity as Americans. 

When I was in elementary school, there were separate holidays to celebrate the birthdays of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. Before each holiday, we spent time in class learning about what each of those great men contributed to our country. Whether it was coloring pictures in kindergarten, writing stories in fifth grade, or composing an essay in high school, I continued to learn more each year about why each man was exceptional, and how each of them contributed to our exceptional country. Slowly, over time, that pattern has changed. Most schools celebrate “Presidents’ Day.” Prior to the holiday there may be instruction about Washington and Lincoln, all of the presidents, the office itself, or nothing at all. The lesson that is connected to the holiday, if there is one, differs between teachers, schools, and school districts. The school district in which my children attend school incorporates the holiday into a vacation period the district refers to as “Presidents’ Recess”, but most parents refer to as “ski week.” In my opinion, the holiday has little meaning, and there is a minimal amount of time spent educating students about the history that underlies it.

Could it be that the same type of transformation is happening to Thanksgiving? The question occurred to me several weeks ago when I was helping plan my third grader’s Halloween party.  We were discussing the parties that are scheduled throughout the school year, and the room mother mentioned that there would be no Thanksgiving party. I thought that was odd because my two older children had feasts and parties all the way through 6th grade. When my son was in kindergarten eight years ago, the children dressed as Pilgrims and Native Americans, sat on the floor feasting until their bellies were full, and learned about William Bradford, Chief Massasoit, and Myles Standish.  I have served as the room parent for several of his classes, as well those of my daughter who is now in the seventh grade. There was no question that there would be a celebration in those classes, and I was repeatedly astounded that someone was willing to cook a turkey or other time consuming dish just a day or two before cooking again in her (yes, most of the time it was a mom) home. Although my third grade daughter had a party in kindergarten and first grade, there was no Thanksgiving party in her class last year. I believe there was instructional time devoted to Thanksgiving, but I do not know what was taught. I learned that this year’s fifth grade classes in her elementary school, which study the colonial and revolutionary periods, will have a joint party. My older children report that there will be little, if any, celebration of Thanksgiving in their schools this year.

I began to wonder how Thanksgiving is celebrated in other districts. Last week, I asked my Facebook friends, as well as various groups I belong to on Linkedin, about the Thanksgiving vacation schedule. I also asked if Thanksgiving would be celebrated, and what was scheduled to occur during the celebration. I was curious not only about what was happening, but whether anyone noticed a change in the instruction that students receive about the holiday.  I was surprised by several things that I learned. Yes, there are still schools which hold traditional Thanksgiving celebrations, but they are few and far between. Many schools are on vacation for the entire Thanksgiving week. Some schools scheduled Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday as inclement weather days, other schools will be on furlough, and still others have scheduled the time off in much the same manner as our local school district’s President’s Recess. The majority of responses had no additional comments and provided only the requested information. Aside from those residents of the State of Massachusetts (where the holiday still seems to be celebrated whole heartedly), I was surprised at how many people responded that there would be no party, and perhaps no discussion of Thanksgiving at all. If there was to be some type of meal or feast, it would primarily occur in kindergarten or first grade classes. One respondent indicated that the feast had been transformed into a gathering of forest animals rather than meal shared by the Pilgrims and Native Americans. However, there were also several threads of anger that ran through the responses. Several Native Descendants were angered by the Pilgrim’s behavior toward the Native Americans (e.g., stealing wheat, etc.), and one individual referred to the celebratory meal as a “purported welfare dinner.” Others were angered not only about changes in Thanksgiving celebrations, but also how Christmas and other the winter holidays are now dealt with by the public schools. One respondent stated that the local school district prohibits teachers from mentioning holidays other than President’s Day and Martin Luther King Jr. Day because all other holidays may be connected to a religion or culture that is not shared by all the students. It seems that in a tacit effort to be politically correct, public schools may be increasingly reluctant to discuss Thanksgiving at all. 

Next, I began to consider some of the negative comments and publicity that has been attached to the Thanksgiving holiday. In 1970, the United American Indians of New England (UAINE) declared Thanksgiving to be a day of mourning. There are many examples of objections to elementary school children dressing in costume for Thanksgiving. One particularly poignant example was a 2008 conflict between kindergarten parents in Claremont, Ca. For more than 40 years, children from two different elementary schools had taken turns feasting at one another’s school while dressing in costume. Eventually, the school district decided the tradition could continue, so long as the costumes were eliminated. There are endless websites devoted to disputing various aspects of the Thanksgiving narrative including whether the Pilgrims actually wore black clothing, which year the meal took place, the relationship between the Pilgrims and the Native Americans, and the culture of the Wampanoag people themselves.

What does this all mean? Before drawing any conclusions, it is important to recognize that I have no way of knowing if the responses I received are representative of the practices at public schools as a whole. However, it is enough information to suggest that each reader should take the time to inquire exactly what is, or is not, being taught to his or her own children. Will there be any discussion of the significance of Thanksgiving? Will the students be made aware of the historical events that the holiday commemorates? How will those events be described? How will the Pilgrims be characterized? How will the Thanksgiving meal be portrayed? Will historical events be ignored in favor of an ahistorical forest animal feast, or will the meal be ignored all together. Is it possible that Thanksgiving may be written off as just another myth associated with the founding of our country?

Why, you might ask, is it important for our school children to learn about Thanksgiving at all? After all, No Child Left Behind, as well as other state and federal programs, has heavily shifted instructional minutes onto the subjects of math and language arts. From my perspective, Thanksgiving is important because it is the holiday celebrated during the school year that is most directly tied to the subject of American History. That subject has received a decreasing amount of instructional time with each passing school year. Not only are our children not being taught important facts about the history of their country, but those facts are not being reinforced across the time of their elementary and secondary education. When will they come to understand the struggles of our Forefathers and Founders to establish this nation, if they do not learn about them in school? 

Another question is whether the Thanksgiving meal will be yet another American tradition that is dissected, demeaned, devalued, and discarded? Why does Thanksgiving seem to be under attack? It appears to me that the debunking and deconstruction of American historical events, figures, and traditions unravels the sense of identity and national unity once shared by most Americans. America is an exceptional nation. Its citizens enjoy individual liberties and freedoms not enjoyed elsewhere in the world. However, there is an element within us that insists on picking apart our leaders, our common history, and our traditions. For example, although not connected to Thanksgiving, I have read articles questioning whether Abraham Lincoln actually wrote the Gettysburg Address on the back of an envelope. Many of the “myth busting” type websites imply that is not so, and I profess that I have not researched the subject. However, the speech is memorable nonetheless. Short. Succinct. Brilliant. Given at just the right moment in our nation’s history. Isn’t that what we should focus on? Isn’t that what is important? Is the speech any less significant because it might have been written somewhere other than on the back of an envelope? Could it be that the true underlying reason for such an attack is to demean the character of one of our greatest presidents? Picking apart the character of our leaders, or events such as the Thanksgiving meal, undermines the pride we feel for our country and diminishes our sense of a common heritage. Interestingly, what is under attack are the actions of Pilgrims and the Thanksgiving meal itself, but not the reason that two presidents proclaimed national days of thanksgiving. How would those who are unhappy with the commemoration of a feast between the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag people react if they were aware of what Washington and Lincoln wrote in their proclamations?

The United States officially celebrated its first Thanksgiving in 1789 after a proclamation by George Washington (http://lcweb2.loc.gov/ammem/GW/gw004.html). Washington ordered a “day of public thanksgiving” to acknowledge God’s favors upon the nation including the peaceful establishment of a government for the citizens’ safety and happiness, as well as “for the civil and religious liberty with which we are blessed.” In 1863, Abraham Lincoln issued a proclamation instituting an annual day of thanksgiving in this country. He also praised God for blessings bestowed upon the nation even amidst the Civil War. He asked that the American people “implore the interposition of the Almighty hand to heal the wounds of the nation, and to restore it, as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes, to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility, and union” (http://memory.loc.gov/cgi-bin/ampage?collId=llsl&fileName=013/llsl013.db&recNum=764). And in reality, isn’t that what Thanksgiving is really all about? It is not about whether or not the Pilgrims wore black. It is not what year the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag people shared a meal. It is the thanks that we should have that the Wampanoag gave aid to the Pilgrims. It is the thanks we share that our Founding Fathers sought to create a nation like none other. It is the thanks we share as Americans that our nation has survived a civil war, global conflicts, societal change and natural disasters for more than 200 years. It is coming together to give thanks for our past (imperfections and all), as well for what we share with our family, our community, and our fellow citizens.

As for my children, we’ll be talking about Thanksgiving in the time remaining until our holiday dinner on Thursday.  We’ll discuss who the Pilgrims were, and what their lives were like in those first years after settling in a new land. We’ll focus on facts and try to flesh out some of the people in historical context.  We will talk about the Wampanoag people, why they were reluctant to interact with the Pilgrims, and how their existence changed after settlements began to spring up across their homeland. We will connect the generosity of those Native Americans with the American tradition of giving to those in need in times of trouble. We will remember that America would be a different place if those settlers had not sought a new beginning in the “New World,” and they might have perished if not for the assistance of the indigenous population. We will also discuss the presidential proclamations of Washington and Lincoln that are so often ignored, and why these men thought it befitting to thank God for a variety of reasons. Unfortunately, at this late date, the discussions will be rather limited. Next year, I will take steps, and have materials ready, to deepen my children’s understanding of and appreciation for this holiday.  Happy Thanksgiving to you and your family!

Susan C. Rempel, Ph.D.

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