The story of thanksgiving is about showing compassion for others, not being thankful for the stuff you have

Thanksgiving is American as apple pie, or so they say. In America, the school days before Thanksgiving are filled with read-alouds in classrooms about the holiday’s back-story. English men who flee persecution to safer lands survive a treacherous journey, become friends with the Native Americans, and start a celebration to give thanks for surviving their struggles.

While the story of these persecuted people is a good rebuttal to Americans who oppose accepting Syrian refugees, it is also a story with themes that we often overlook during the annual holiday. While gratefulness is the most obvious theme of the holiday, we often overlook the theme of compassion.

When the Pilgrims landed in Plymouth Rock, they faced the harsh New England winter that wiped out half their crew. When the Pilgrims left their boat in the spring, they were helped by a Native American man, Squanto, who taught the moribund colony how to live and survive off the land. A year after this encounter, the governor of Plymouth Colony prepared a feast with the Native Americans to celebrate their first harvest in the New World. The first Thanksgiving.

The story of Thanksgiving is not powerful because a group of people were thankful to be alive after times of hardship. What makes this story strong and powerful is the idea that complete strangers would come to the help of other human beings. Without the compassion of the Native Americans, the pilgrims that landed at Plymouth Rock would have likely died.

It is the compassion the Native Americans had towards the pilgrims that gave Thanksgiving value as a national tradition.

But with the current situation inside the United States, celebrating Thanksgiving should be seen as a mockery to those who currently need our compassion, the poor. It can only be compared with Fredrick Douglass’ sentiment in The Meaning of July Fourth for the Negro.

While millions of families gather around dinner tables to celebrate their gratitude, the same is not true for the other half of America. There will be approximately 600,000 Americans who will pass the day wishing for a stable place to live in. In addition, 45 million Americans who live under the poverty line will be thankful if they have enough money to buy food for a simple every day dinner.

Of course, the point of Thanksgiving is to be grateful for whatever you have. The mom who works on Thanksgiving should be grateful she has a job. Right? The homeless will be outside in the cold, but they should be thankful for their life. Right?

But you can’t expect a hard working mom to be thankful with the fact that she needs to work on a night she could spend with her children just because she can’t make ends meet, while her boss spends the night in companionship of his/her entire family. Likewise, it is unjust to ask a homeless person to be thankful for a life sleeping on newspapers, eating every other day, while you walk by with a ten pound turkey in addition to having the privilege of daily meals.

Increasingly, we continue to become a society where only those who have the privileges of a higher income will have anything to be thankful for. And all of this is perpetuated by ideologies that advocate for hardcore individualism which assaults any sort of social safety net that exist for the poor, instead of living in a culture and nation of cooperation that helps those who need a hand.

On Thanksgiving, our conscious reminds us of the people we push to the back of our head. But we try to shake off the shame by adding in a line of  “compassion” for those who have less while praying for our excess food. It must feel good to show that we “care” about the “least of these”. But their suffering is daily, and it is sad that we could help them every day, but choose to pray for them as our maximum effort. Imagine if Squanto had chosen to pray for the pilgrims instead of actually helping them.

This Thanksgiving, take the focus off what you have, and think about what you can do to help those who have nothing. While helping the poor also depends on voting for those who care about them, we should strive to live in a society where the poor can be thankful for people that show them they matter. In the end, that’s what the Native Americans did for the pilgrims.

I wish you a thoughtful Thanksgiving.


  1. I appreciated your mention of an ideology that centers around the notion of “hard-core individualism.”

    The Marlboro Man riding fence alone on a snow-covered landscape is a bogus little piece of Americana, a male-oriented myth that has been perpetuated and is now magnified by advertising geniuses who could care less about history.

    When the federal government began giving land away in the midwest, recipients typically had a well-defined square or rectangular piece of turf (though cornerstones were often moved to advance one’s interests). The settlers initially built their homes right in the center of their property, which put them at quite a distance from their nearest neighbors. It didn’t take long for them to realize that they would all be better off—in numerous ways—if they built their homes at the corner of their land most proximate to the corners of plots belonging to three other people/families. Hence, the beginning of small communities of people who worked the land.

    They understood that hyper-individualism is hyper-stupid. Especially if you’re in hostile territory or just like seeing faces other than those of your family. They figured out that they were stronger together than apart.

    I am often amused by conservative Christians who promote that myth. Were they to actually blow the dust off their Bibles and read them, they would know that the primitive Semitic tribes, the later Hebrew peoples and the early Christians knew nothing of such individualism. Their entire focus was on the ongoing life of the community, the tribe, the people. Individual destiny was of little consequence compared to the destiny of the people as a whole.

    It was only when Christianity became westernized that individualism began to creep in. And only when it became Americanized that individualism became more important than community.

    As I said, I appreciate your mention of the subject. It is something that needs to be explored much further in its every dimension—sociologically, anthropologically, economically, historically and in terms of the much ballyhooed Judeo/Christian ethic. There are a lot of Ph.D dissertations waiting for someone to research/write in that arena of study.

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