Inventing Traditions

Last Christmas Eve, I wrote the following Facebook post: “Reading Eric Hobsbawm’s The Invention of Tradition helped me understand that all traditions are invented out of specific historic, cultural, economic, and political needs. And later, in preparing to teach a course, I read The Battle for Christmas, about the pagan roots of what became both a major religious holiday and a consumerist juggernaut. So now, we celebrate the season with our own invented traditions that have been imbued with meaning and memories over the years. There’s no Christ in our Christmas, but there is gratitude, giving and receiving, family, food, comfort and joy (and snickerdoodles and the soundtrack to Charlie Brown’s Christmas special). Merry Christmas to all who celebrate, however you celebrate it!”

Traditions have always been mutable, so celebrate your holidays however you want, was my point. They’re tools for living in the present, for connection and a sense of continuity here and now, not memorials to the past or edicts that must be strictly adhered to. I grew up observing Christmas as a Christian holiday, with church services and “Silent Night” and stories of the three wise men, and Mary, Joseph, and baby Jesus in a manger. But we also had Santa Claus, a Christmas tree, and presents under it, the secular and holy all mixed up in my memories. Although my mother has tried to persuade me to attend the local church’s Christmas service with my children, an attempt to keep some ties to those religious traditions, my atheist husband and I felt it would be dishonest to show our faces just once a year and pretend in any way to be believers. Over the years, we’ve invented our own traditions instead, and I’ve been pleasantly surprised by how readily our children have taken to these rituals.

On one of the first Christmases we spent together as a couple, my husband and I bought a small wooden Pinocchio ornament at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art gift shop. In subsequent years, we picked up another ornament or two each year, and kept track of what, where, and when right on the square box the original Pinocchio came in. When our kids got old enough to pick out their own ornaments, they joined in the tradition. Now, 20+ years into the practice, we have quite a collection of ornaments and stories to go along with them. Each year’s unpacking brings a fresh rehearsal of stories and memories – remember when C picked out that ornament because he thought it was a cookie and wanted to eat it? The lid of the box is covered, inside and out, and we’ve started writing on the box itself this year. It’s a small thing, this tradition, but it’s ours.

So, I think invented traditions are the way to go, and that that’s all we’ve ever had, as families, as societies, as nations. Traditions get invented and reinvented, and while plenty of people try to dictate how they should be observed, no one has the final word.

But what about a holiday like Thanksgiving, based on a myth that whitewashes American history? In recent years, activists and educators have been pushing the national conversation about how not to perpetuate the myth of a peaceful and harmonious “First Thanksgiving” between Pilgrims and the Wampanoag people, collecting and sharing resources about how to decolonize the teaching of Thanksgiving in schools. Articles about the invention of Thanksgiving, spurred by this activism and the publication of books like This Land Is Their Land: The Wampanoag Indians, Plymouth Colony, and the Troubled History of Thanksgiving by David Silverman, raise questions about how to tell a more truthful story and to acknowledge the harms of the myth. As told in a recent book review article in The New Yorker by historian Philip Deloria, the original meeting itself in 1621 between the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag tribe was led on the Wampanoag side by Ousamequin, “an experienced diplomat, [who] was engaged in a challenging game of regional geopolitics, of which the Pilgrims were only a part.” Ousamequin and his fellow Wampanoags were honoring a mutual defense pact with the Pilgrims when they showed up. Years later, these same Pilgrims celebrated bloody victories over the Native people by “mount[ing] the head of Ousamequin’s son Pumetacom above their town on a pike, where it remained for two decades.” You don’t often hear about that part.

Like Christmas, the version of Thanksgiving that we’ve come to celebrate was invented and solidified largely in the 19th century, to create an imagined American community in the midst of Civil War. The New Yorker review thus summarizes:

In 1841, the Reverend Alexander Young explicitly linked three things: the 1621 “rejoicing,” the tradition of autumnal harvest festivals, and the name Thanksgiving. He did so in a four-line throwaway gesture and a one-line footnote. Of such half thoughts is history made.

A couple of decades later, Sarah Josepha Hale, the editor of Godey’s Lady’s Book, proposed a day of unity and remembrance to counter the trauma of the Civil War, and in 1863 Abraham Lincoln declared the last Thursday of November to be that national holiday, following Young’s lead in calling it Thanksgiving.”

“Thanksgiving Day – The Dinner (Harper’s Weekly, Vol. II)” by Winslow Homer (1858) is licensed under CC0 1.0

In the following decades, anti-immigrant sentiments led to further consolidation of the myth of America’s founding centered on whiteness, specifically linking the day to the fabled “First Thanksgiving.” Deloria continues:

Fretting over late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century immigration, American mythmakers discovered that the Pilgrims, and New England as a whole, were perfectly cast as national founders: white, Protestant, democratic, and blessed with an American character centered on family, work, individualism, freedom, and faith.

The new story aligned neatly with the defeat of American Indian resistance in the West and the rising tide of celebratory regret that the anthropologist Renato Rosaldo once called “imperialist nostalgia.” Glorifying the endurance of white Pilgrim founders diverted attention from the brutality of Jim Crow and racial violence, and downplayed the foundational role of African slavery. The fable also allowed its audience to avert its eyes from the marginalization of Asian and Latinx labor populations, the racialization of Southern European and Eastern European immigrants, and the rise of eugenics. At Thanksgiving, white New England cheerfully shoved the problematic South and West off to the side, and claimed America for itself.

What do we do with the history of such mythmaking, so effectively propagandized through seemingly innocent grade school lessons and activities? Is there a way to return to the “rituals, foodways, and themes of family—and national—reunion” that prevailed after the Civil War and leave the “imperialist nostalgia” narrative of Pilgrim founders out of it? Of course, in many ways, Thanksgiving does retain the themes of family reunion and togetherness, of gratitude and bounty, as its ideals. What I love about the inventedness of traditions, though, is that you can see the seams of the stitched-together story if you look. Along with the Norman Rockwell images of people gathered around the table are the stories of fractious family encounters, where competing expectations and values clash in spectacular fashion or simmer under the surface in tense, repressed silences. There are now even advice columns that get shared every year about how to survive Thanksgiving dinners with difficult relatives. The dysfunctional family trying to hold it together through rituals of communion (food, football, Black Friday sales) despite differences — it all seems too perfect a metaphor for what “America” is, always in tension with what it’s supposed to be.

The responsible thing to do, it seems, is to acknowledge the ugly and violent history that’s too often forgotten, even as we continue to reinvent the holiday. To put another way, acknowledging the multiple layers of the holiday is the way to an ethical reinvention, especially in our schools and public discourse. Can we imagine a future POTUS, instead of pardoning a turkey every year, hosting a truth and reconciliation ceremony with First Nations? The land acknowledgment statements increasingly adopted by cultural institutions seem a first step in that direction.

For my part, every time an immigrant family celebrates Thanksgiving in their adopted home, I will consider it a rebuke to the anti-immigrant purposes to which the holiday was put. In my own family gatherings of childhood, after the turkey, sweet potatoes, and stuffing, there was always a big pot of Korean radish soup with rice and kimchi. We were celebrating less a fictional American history than the survival of transplanted lives, rerooted in new soil. And before “Friendsgiving” was a thing, my grad school friends and I hosted what we called our “orphan Thanksgivings,” forging community in the California desert among those of us who, for whatever reason, found it easier to stay on campus than go home. More than any other American holiday, Thanksgiving has the most potential for reinvention as a truly capacious and inclusive holiday, the build-a-longer-table, set-another-place, always-room-for-one-more kind of secular holiday that we need today and in the days to come.

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