Thanksgiving — a uniquely American time when families gather, remember their roots, share a meal and express gratitude — has always been my favorite holiday.

But just look at how quickly such a simple and profound observance gets perverted. Today, we hardly know what giving thanks even means, and so the act is lost on most of us. Newscasters talk about “turkey day” as though eating was all there was to this special time.

Then, when we have barely taken the time to consider the notion of “giving thanks,” we get up early the following “Black Friday” to rush around looking for “a good deal” to help us celebrate the consumer-driven craze into which Christmas has  morphed.

Wow! How did we get here? What can we do about it?

Let’s take a moment to look at the roots of Thanksgiving.

We are told that the first Thanksgiving Day was in autumn 1621. After a successful harvest that year at the Plymouth Colony, there were a number of days of celebration. The local natives and the colonists joined together, with the Indians generally showing the colonists how to hunt for the meal, which consisted of fowl, deer and fish. Cornbread, wild greens, plums, leeks and many other vegetables (wild and domestic) were shared in the celebration. Interestingly, there is no evidence that wild turkey or wild cranberries  (totally unpalatable without cooking and adding sweeteners) were part of the menu. 

In fact, some historians question whether there were any religious overtones at all on this “first Thanksgiving,” citing such evidence as the archery and firearms games, and the running and jumping competitions, which they say would never be held at religious ceremonies.

What is it then that sets the American (and the Canadian) Thanksgiving celebrations apart from any of myriad harvest festivals?

The pilgrims owed their survival largely to the English-speaking Indian Squanto (or Tisquantum). Not widely known is that this “first Thanksgiving” feast had mostly political overtones, which seem to have largely backfired. Tisquantum was actually the interpreter for Massasoit, who was the political-military leader of the local Wampanoag tribe. Massasoit was worried that his weakened tribe would be exploited by the stronger Narragansett. Massasoit would permit the European newcomers to stay, as long as they aligned with Massasoit against the Narraganset.

Despite the varied history, Americans have chosen to see this as a day set aside in order to not lose sight of our spiritual heritage, which is the real bounty.

Both Thanksgiving and the Fourth of July are times that Americans have traditionally set aside to reflect upon the concepts of “freedom” and “giving thanks.” The purpose of such special times of reflection is to see how well we have done during the past year, and determine what corrections we should make if we find that we are veering away from our chosen path. It should not be a time of merely “having fun.”

As long as we equate giving thanks with eating a lot of really good food, the practical effect is that Thanksgiving today is little more than a harvest festival. Giving thanks is a particular attitude which accompanies specific actions. Perhaps sharing our bounty with the needy would be a better Thanksgiving activity than eating large amounts of food. More to the point, perhaps we should use Thanksgiving to give thanks where it is due — to the American Indians who have become “forgotten minorities.” Rather than just eating, perhaps we could send that food, along with money, to any of the American Indian families or nations who today live in Third World conditions.

To me, the essence of Thanksgiving was always the coming together of two cultures, trying to work together in order to survive under trying circumstances. Yes, they shared a meal. Food sustains us. But it was not about food, per se. They practiced with their bows and guns, a sign of mutual preparedness. And they prayed to their gods in ways that were appropriate to each culture. 

There is much to be thankful for on Thanksgiving. But we really should not forget our national roots. Don’t just give lip-service to the Native Americans who gave our ancestors food, shelter and assistance, only to have their land stolen from them. Rather, find those organizations that are actually providing real assistance to Native Americans living in poverty, such as many of those living in the impoverished conditions that are so prevalent on today’s reservations. 

If you have trouble locating such organizations, contact me and I will make some suggestions. 


Nyerges is the author of “Foraging California,” “Nuts and Berries of California” and other books on self-reliance. He has led foraging walks since 1974.  He is also the manager at the Tuesday Highland Park Farmer’s Market. Questions can be sent to this paper, or he can be reached at SchoolofSelf-Reliance.com.