Thank You, and Sorry — A Holiday of Celebration and Sorrow
Pumpkin pie, cranberry jam, HoneyBaked ham, and turkey. These are what Thanksgiving meant for me as a child growing up in the U.S. Well, that, and one or two welcome days off from school, of course.
Pretty shallow, I know. Sure, intellectually I knew that it was a day where I was supposed to be thankful. And if I thought more about it, I’d remember all the elementary school lessons of how, in 1621, the Pilgrims broke bread with Native Americans as a gesture of friendship.
That was presumably the first Thanksgiving meal.
Eventually, I’d come to learn that what I was taught in elementary school was only a half-truth. That what followed after that first banquet of brotherhood was anything but brotherly: war, pillaging, relentless appropriation of land, cultural decimation.
To this day, Thanksgiving Day is a day of sorrow for many Native Americans.
So, is Thanksgiving Day really still a holiday worth celebrating?
A similar sensitive conundrum exists in the Arabian Peninsula.
Not long ago, I learned about beautiful schools in Israel called Hand in Hand. They’re Jewish-Arab-integrated schools, and in every classroom, there’s a Jewish teacher and an Arab teacher.
All children are taught both Hebrew and Arabic. They learn about the cultures, histories, religions, and holidays of both people.
One holiday students learn about is Israeli Independence Day. Another day is called Nakba, which for Palestinian-Arabs is a day of disaster and mourning.
Well, these days are one and the same.
Israeli kids learn that Independence Day is a happy day for them, but a sad day for their classmates. A day when hundreds of thousands of their friends’ ancestors’ babies, mommies and daddies either died or were forced to abandon their homes.
Often, Israeli kids then feel moved to go up to the Arab kids and say, “I’m sorry.”
Enlightened parents line up to enroll their young children into these schools. They understand how important it is to get compassion into their child’s neural circuitry ASAP.
What a more peaceful world we’d live in if all children, early in their intellectual development, learned to put themselves in each other’s shoes.
Of course, there’s a place for age-appropriate instruction. As a six-year-old first-grader, of course I didn’t need to learn that Native American Indians were slaughtered and their tipis razed to the ground. (I don’t know when would be an apt time to learn that level of detail.) But maybe it would have been enough to learn something as simple as the fact that for some people, Thanksgiving was a sad day because they started to lose their way of life.
The term “holiday” originally comes from an Old English word that means “holy day.” Modern usage, however, has assumed a more secular meaning: a day of rest and recreation.
Still, one principle of spirituality is that nothing is holy or unholy except for the purpose ascribed to it. I think this can explain the fact that to this day, some Native Americans do, in fact, celebrate Thanksgiving. Not so much for its historical significance, but for the underlying values that the day represents.
For no matter what pain the past holds, we can choose to leave that pain there while still honoring it for the wisdom it’s given us. Even if that wisdom is simply a reminder that while pain is sometimes inevitable, suffering is always optional, and that there are still so many things, big and small, to be grateful for.
Back to my earlier question. For me, yes, Thanksgiving certainly is worth celebrating. And I celebrate it while atoning inside for the suffering that Native Americans went through as America gradually became the nation that would eventually bestow me with so many blessings.
Interestingly enough, Thanksgiving didn’t become a national holiday until 1863, almost 250 years after the first “Thankgiving meal.” While the nation was still in the grip of the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln enjoined Americans to give thanks for a crucial Union victory, and to pray for the dead and those who mourned for them.
This year, I’m especially grateful for our family doctors (my Manang Marites and Manang Joy), for my nursing family and friends (way too many to name), and for all front-liners inside and outside of healthcare (even FoodPanda drivers!) who’ve waged a different kind of war: one against COVID.
These heroes help keep me and my loved ones safe, able to give thanks for one another and for the graces of God we enjoy today.