Thoughts on Thanksgiving

Did you know that turkeys have a field vision of about 270 degrees, or that they fly between 50-55 miles per hour? Aristotle Thanksgiving is one of the many websites that can give you an edge with your Thanksgiving knowledge in the classroom or at the dinner table. With the holiday around the corner, I thought it would be appropriate to review a few of these resources, which range from list of “fun facts” to serious discussions of colonialism and environmental issues. Read on to facilitate conversation about history, culture, and current events!

Young Tom Turkey Fanning Tail© Szeno | Dreamstime Stock Photos & Stock Free Images

Young Tom Turkey Fanning Tail © Szeno | Dreamstime Stock Photos & Stock Free Images

For a general historical background and some visual material, visit the Smithsonian website. The Smithsonian provides a brief history of the early Thanksgivings held by Europeans in the North American colonies. The festivities were grounded in Native American rituals performed to celebrate the harvest, but they combined Puritan religious practice and European traditions with local customs. The celebration that we have come to identify as the first Thanksgiving occurred in the fall of 1621 and may have drawn on the traditional English Harvest Home festival. In 1789, President Washington declared “a day of public thanksgiving and prayer” to take place on Thursday, the 26th of November. Finally, on October 3, 1863, President Lincoln proclaimed the fourth Thursday of November an official day of Thanksgiving to be celebrated annually. The Smithsonian website includes a short bibliography, a transcription of George Washington’s Proclamation of 1789, and a selection of images from the Smithsonian collections, including historic menus, paintings, and prints. For a more extensive bibliography on Thanksgiving, visit the website of the Pilgrim Hall Museum
 located in Plymouth, MA.

Living history is a wonderful way to learn about Thanksgiving, the settlers, and Native Americans. If there aren’t events in your area, consider watching free videos on The Mayflower, pilgrim villages, the Wampanoag Nation, and the first Thanksgiving, available online through Scholastic and created by Plimoth Plantation in Massachusetts. Living history museums also offer holiday-themed events and lectures. You can learn what’s true and what we should reconsider about commonly held Thanksgiving knowledge during a public lecture at Colonial Williamsburg on November 27th from 2:30-3:30.

The NEA provides free lesson plans, teaching resources, history, recipes, activities, and quizzes divided by grades K-5, 6-8, and 9-12. The NEA website led me to a particularly useful resource for teachers of grades 4-8 dedicated to exploring American Indian perspectives on Thanksgiving and written by the National Museum of the American Indian. This resource explores the Native American connection to and cultivation of the land, and poses the question, “How do environmental changes affect the interconnected relationship between people and place?” The Museum suggests listening to the National Public Radio story “Drought threatens Navajo’s Crops, Culture” as a tool for thinking about the continued relevancy of this question for native populations. Directing classroom or dinner conversations in the direction of the environment might lead to a particularly timely conversation about environmental change, given the recent headlines made by the Warsaw Climate Change Conference.

The food on the Thanksgiving table is rich with history and potential topics of conversation. You might talk about where the food on the table comes from. Is any of it local? If so, did you buy it directly from a farmer or rather from a distributor? Did you or relatives grow, preserve, or prepare the food yourself? You can brush up on the history of Thanksgiving foods with a segment by BackStory with the American History Guys, an NEH-funded program of the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities. In a series of interviews, the History Guys investigate the cultural, religious, and historical context of this national holiday. “A short course on the history of 8 Thanksgiving foods” by Amanda Moniz for the Washington Post will teach you about the history of a number of holiday favorites, from apple cider to sweet potatoes with marshmallows.

This year, the rare coincidence of Thanksgiving and Hannukah provides the opportunity for particularly rich conversations and culinary experiments. A piece in the Glencoe News, a Chicago-area newspaper, suggests poignant connections between the two holidays, including cooperation and religious freedom. Do you see other connections or ways of putting the two holidays in dialogue with one another?

If you haven’t already, check out the New York Times for some interesting ways to blend the ingredients and flavors of both holidays. How about trying your Hannukah brisket marinated with Aleppo pepper and pomegranate molasses, or Latkes topped with Portuguese pumpkin preserves?

Before the tryptophan sets in or the football game becomes too absorbing, take a moment to pursue one of these avenues of Thanksgiving-themed reflection. What are your Thanksgiving traditions? How do you honor your own family’s heritage and customs, and how do you create community with others during this holiday?

Emily Monty is an art historian researching early modern European art. She holds a master’s in art history from Tufts University and a bachelors from Bates College. She has studied museum theory and practice at the Smith College Summer Institute for Art Museum Studies. She leads tours at the Tufts University Art Gallery and has interned at the Bates College Museum of Art, the Currier Museum of Art , and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. She teaches art history at a number of lifelong learning programs in the greater Boston area.

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