Guest Post - Paul Kivel - Food for Thought with your Thanksgiving Turkey

by: EJ on 11/22/2013
Posted in: Social Justice

"Winter is a particularly dense period of Christian holidays seeming to dominate all aspects of our lives from Thanksgiving through New Year’s Day." This is the first of two guest posts from Paul Kivel, author of Living in the Shadow of the Cross:Understanding and Resisting the Power and Privilege of Christian Hegemony in which he examines the role Christianity plays in our winter holiday cycle.

Holidays are great when they reaffirm our connections to family and friends, are inclusive, build community and honor accurate histories. Holidays are also important when they celebrate significant cultural events and connect us to our deepest communal values.

However, holidays can be destructive when they celebrate war or colonialism, are promoted aggressively or when corporations use them to promote values hostile to our environment and us. Holidays become destructive and exclusive when they are proclaimed as universal but are actually culturally specific or when they are based on historical lies and perpetuate misinformation.

Christian leaders have established an annual holiday cycle that extols US militarism/ triumphalism, the nuclear family, consumerism and whiteness. This holiday cycle downplays the violence in our history, holds up a few white Christian men, such as Christopher Columbus and our presidents, for uncritical praise and emphasizes faith, family and country.

For many in the US, this cycle has come to seem traditional, even though it is constantly recreated and most of the holidays originated within the last 150 years. For some, these holidays have come to feel familiar, unifying and just plain American even though for millions of others they can be painful and alienating. Most of our national holidays are seen as secular, even though their underpinnings are deeply Christian. Even Christmas and Easter are viewed as secular by many. (I have been told that the phrase Merry Christmas in bold letters on the public buses in my city is not religious but merely a general holiday greeting.) The winter is a particularly dense period of Christian holidays seeming to dominate all aspects of our lives from Thanksgiving through New Year’s Day.


Like Columbus Day, Thanksgiving is a holiday that attempts to give a benign veneer to a violent colonization process. Early New England colonists generally believed Native Americans to be infidels and Canaanites. Puritan preachers in the colonies routinely referred to them as savages.

The historical evidence is not of a thanksgiving meal but of an invitation from the invaders inviting Wampanoag locals to a feast, with the goal of negotiating a treaty for land the Puritans wanted. The Wampanoag brought food to the gathering out of a sense of hospitality.

The Wampanoag and other Natives refused to give up their lands, but the pressure and violence from the colonists were unrelenting. Within a single generation the Puritans eliminated nearly all Native peoples in New England by murdering them, driving them into French territory as refugees or selling them into slavery in the Carolinas.

For the Puritans, a thanksgiving was a religious holiday in which they would go to church and thank God for a specific event, such as the winning of a battle. Many of their early thanksgiving celebrations were to give thanks that they had triumphed over "the Indians” and been able to massacre so many. This is illustrated in the text of the Thanksgiving sermon delivered at Plymouth in 1623 by Mather the Elder. In it, he gave special thanks for a devastating smallpox plague that wiped out most of the Wampanoag Indians who had helped the Puritan community.

Thanksgiving as celebrated today promotes a false understanding of this period, in which white Christians supposedly coexisted peacefully with Native Americans. It portrays Indians as generous but long gone, mysteriously vanished from the places the so-called pilgrims lived and where their descendants live still.

Celebration of Thanksgiving ensures that the European invasion of North America and the genocide against its original inhabitants remain invisible. Native peoples remain stereotyped, marginalized and exploited. Thanksgiving is a time of mourning for many Native Americans and their allies.

If you are Christian or raised Christian and this vision of Thanksgiving disturbs you, Paul suggests there are several ways you can work to become a Christian ally.

  • Notice the operation of Christian dominance in your own life
  • Understand and acknowledge the benefits you gain from being Christian in the North America
  • Use your privilege to support the struggles of non-Christian peoples throughout the world

He also recommends beginning to discuss these topics in conversations with other Christians.  So this year when you join your family around the Thanksgiving feast, you might like to stimulate a new direction in the conversation.

To learn more about Christian hegemony and its affects on North American culture, read Living in the Shadow of the Cross:Understanding and Resisting the Power and Privilege of Christian Hegemony or visit the author's website



blog comments powered by Disqus