Americans sat down to turkey dinners with family and friends Thursday to celebrate the blessings in our lives and the blessings that our country has bestowed upon us.
Or did they?
Those who are multigenerational Americans probably did celebrate Thanksgiving. But I wonder if new Americans -- Asians, Hispanics, Muslims, Indians, Pakistanis and all other ethnicities -- relate to Thanksgiving in the same way?
President Abraham Lincoln declared Thanksgiving a national holiday in 1863 as a way to build unity in the country during the Civil War. More than 150 years later, Thanksgiving has come to represent America's creation story.
We recall the Pilgrims who arrived at the Plymouth Bay Colony and worked together with the Native Americans to learn how to survive that harsh winter. They celebrated the festival, and so was born the story of diversity that Thanksgiving is not only about being thankful to God but also learning how to live with people of diverse populations.
It seems this message is just as critical now.
The fact is that when we do the research about those first settlers at Plymouth Bay Colony and the American Indians, we see a different story from the typical schoolbook portrayals. First, let's not forget that Spanish explorers and communities existed before the Pilgrims arrived. Historians argue that the first non-native settlers in America might very well have been African slaves left behind by the Spanish in 1526, who abandoned an effort to establish a settlement. In fact, the Spanish explored the Carolinas and established forts that were destroyed by the Indians. Even as far back as the late 1500s, Spanish Jews had settled in New Mexico. But these two groups did not get into the national origin myth as the Pilgrims did.
Other areas, such as St. Augustine, Fla., and the Southwestern region of our country preceded the arrival of settlers from England. The Dutch also were settled in the region as far back as 1614 in Albany before the 1620 arrival of the Pilgrims at Plymouth Bay. Thanksgiving never mentioned the centrality of the Pilgrims until the end of the 19th century. Only in the 20th century does the holiday become oriented to the Anglican tradition, which is what the Pilgrims represent in this myth of our national origin.
Historians debate whether the Mayflower was actually hijacked to Plymouth Bay Colony instead of its original destination, which was supposed to have been Virginia. Let's not forget that Jamestown existed in 1607, before any settlements in Massachusetts. Of course, by the time Lincoln declared Thanksgiving a national holiday, it is understandable given the raging Civil War that Richmond, Va., the capital of the Confederacy, was not the ideal place to foster national unity as compared with a Northern colony far away from the battlefields.
I question whether we have really done right by American Indians in our country's Thanksgiving narrative. We should not forget that native American Indians fell in mass to the diseases that Europeans and their civilization brought to the shores of the new world. The brutal truth is that the most effective method of destroying the Indians as a resistance to the onslaught of American expansion were diseases like smallpox, viral hepatitis, chicken pox and influenza. The major plague of 1617 had wiped out almost 90 percent of the Indian population by the time the Mayflower arrived at Plymouth Bay in 1620.
We should do better with Thanksgiving in our American culture. It is a missed opportunity to show that we can get along with others who are of different national origins and can together celebrate the blessings of our great country.
We are living in a country whose election showed how divided we appear to be in a political sense. We need this holiday to offset that reality and to fortify that God does matter at Thanksgiving time because we are a religious nation and that God does not determine which religion is better or superior to another religion.
This is what American exceptionalism should be about -- that we can transcend political, cultural, racial and religious differences that so often divide us. Thanksgiving is our chance to make that a reality.
Columnist Rabbi Brad L. Bloom is the rabbi at Congregation Beth Yam on Hilton Head Island. He can be reached at 843-689-2178. Read his blog at www.fusion613.blogspot.com and follow him on Twitter, @rabbibloom.