Growing up, I felt a pressure to pick between Hanukkah and Chinese New Year. But I knew I could never pick between two holidays that represented two essential parts of my identity. So instead, I embraced a holiday that didn’t focus on either. Thanksgiving was, to me, what I imagined Christmas was to Christian children. Every year, I’d wake up extra early to slip on the new dress my mom and I would spend hours shopping for and run downstairs to be greeted by the delicious smell of roasted turkey, matzah ball soup, and fresh wontons.
Now, as a teen in a social climate that ensures I’m hyper-aware of my identity, I understand that my profound love for Thanksgiving is not reciprocated. The hours my family spends preparing a Thanksgiving feast that represents my heritage is overshadowed by the “real American” Thanksgiving — an ideal that only includes turkey, mashed potatoes, and cranberry sauce. This ideal represents our country’s polarization. Much of our country grows up cutting finger-turkeys out of paper, but many painfully remember Thanksgiving as the National Day of Mourning. In a time when celebrating Thanksgiving has divergent connotations, we can turn to the holiday itself to heal our divided nation.
For more than a century, kids in America have been taught a false version of a Thanksgiving story. The mainstream narrative, which shows Native Americans and pilgrims cooking and celebrating side-by-side, disregards the country’s origins in the mass murder of millions of Native Americans and the hyper-colonization of their lands. Instead, it represents an idealized version of America. This version also fails to reflect America’s diversity. Teachers have enforced uniform Thanksgiving celebrations in school, often excluding immigrant children and eliding their cultural identities.
So, at the moment, Thanksgiving feels divisive: some associate it with the genocide that occurred, others with the harmonious story that is celebrated. But what if Thanksgiving doesn’t have to be this way?
In 1861, Thanksgiving was strategically established by President Lincoln as a national holiday to unite the Civil War-ridden country. Today our country faces a similar division. During the 2020 presidential election, a Pew Research study found that “at a time of deep political divisions and partisan antipathy,” approximately 80% of registered voters said that their disagreements with the other political side were about “core American values.” This past year, tensions regarding these “core American values” escalated: Black Lives Matter protests flooded the streets, Stop Asian Hate graced the headlines of major newspapers, and Pride flags decorated many neighborhoods.
Maybe, now that these social movements are at the forefront of our national consciousness, we are finally ready for a moment of reckoning around Thanksgiving. Maybe we can acknowledge its shortcomings and reimagine the holiday.
As I think about my Thanksgiving experience, I think about what the holiday got right: the opportunity to eat delicious food while surrounded by my family. When designing a better Thanksgiving, we should focus on exactly that — family and food. After all, an Oxford study found 76% of their participants believed an effective way to bond was through eating with others.
Each year, my family prepares for the thirty people who join us in celebrating Thanksgiving. My siblings and I set the table as my Bubbe prepares the stuffing. Once it’s time to sit down and eat, I can’t help but smile at all of the different people and food surrounding me. My family has always hosted colleagues and friends from around the world for this holiday, and our table has always reflected that. We’ve had brisket, a Tandoori turkey, latkes and dumplings. And every Thanksgiving, when I look at the diverse food that decorates my table, I feel comfort and pride. I know that the way my family celebrates Thanksgiving includes my identity as a Chinese-Jewish teen in the words we speak, the prayers we say, and the foods we eat.
In choosing to make Thanksgiving an opportunity to celebrate our diversity, we wouldn’t erase the past, but would try to make amends for it. We could redefine the holiday so that all families, regardless of race, religion, and structure, can feel recognized for the fundamental part they play in American culture. We could celebrate America at the table… and celebrate people like me. Because when people like me are given a seat at the table, we are shown that our representation matters and that our country supports us. Taking this step to include multiculturalism in Thanksgiving could help us move forward together, as a nation. The power to define what this national holiday means is in our hands. We have a chance to honor all that makes our country beautiful — its people. Evoking President Lincoln’s desire to unite the country, we can work to heal our nation through celebrating all of America’s melting pot.
So, next Thanksgiving, choose to honor your diversity. Include foods from your family’s culture. Take pride in seeing a golden-brown turkey alongside your Bubbe’s famous matzo-ball soup and your Nai Nai’s renowned wontons. Look at the table and those around it, and understand that you’ve transformed a holiday that celebrates your family and all that makes it unique.