Heart Talk

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By James Utt
By James Utt
A Curmudgeon Looks at Thanksgiving

I have not let my iconoclastic, cranky side out for a walk for some time. The holiday season seems like a fine time to let loose. I wanted to write about what a stupid holiday Halloween is, but I was afraid my house would get egged. Not by angry kids, but by outraged adults who spend $1.2 billion on costumes. Americans also spend $350 million on pet costumes. Like social critic H.L. Mencken said, “No one ever went broke underestimating the taste of the American public.” Not wanting to incur the wrath of candy crazed Americans, I have decided to pick on Thanksgiving instead.

The idealized memory of that first Thanksgiving when 90 members of the Wampanoag tribe sat down to eat in friendly harmony with 50 Pilgrims is taught to every school child. This tribe, it should be remembered, gave food to the Pilgrims and taught them how to grow certain crops. Without these Native Americans, those who came over on the Mayflower would have experienced a difficult time surviving that first winter.

The fate that befell Native Americans after their first Thanksgiving is all too often pushed to the back of our memory. As a former social science teacher, I did my best to show students what took place. With the arrival of the Puritans in 1630, our history took a nasty turn. Beginning with the slaughter of the Pequots and continuing to the shameful “battle” at Wounded Knee in 1890, white Americans waged a war of extermination against those they called Indians. Civil War hero General Phil Sheridan said,”The only good Indians I ever saw were dead.”

If slavery is our country’s original sin, our treatment of Native Americans is not far behind. We tend to forget this inconvenient truth as we sit down to our November feast.

Ah, the modern day American Thanksgiving, where, in a nation that is 37% obese, the average citizen consumes a meal of 4,500 calories. And notice the division of labor. In most homes the women slave away in the kitchen while the menfolk watch football. Come on guys! I have taken cooking classes. I can prepare a turkey, and I always did the dishes. Are you afraid you will miss a part of the always exciting Detroit Lions game?

Some have said Thanksgiving seems to be a time when family and friends gather and remember why they don’t see each other more often. The copious amounts of alcohol consumed during the day often lend themselves to nasty political fights. This year, when the two most unpopular candidates vied for the presidency, there are bound to be some real knock down, drag out, cover the kid’s ear shouting matches.

Gluttony, bad football, the drunken uncle who starts the political discussion, long travel to spend time with folks you’d rather not see – that’s Thanksgiving for too many Americans. Why do we need a holiday to recognize what we are grateful for? Shouldn’t that be something we are aware of every day? And, oh dear lord, what happens the next day? Black Friday and the mad rush toward an over commercialized Christmas. But that is a subject for another column.

I know I have thrown some cold water on a beloved American holiday. There are many of you that enjoy a warm, low key gathering where love and fellowship reign, and where husbands and sons actually help prepare and clean up. Many of you are also aware of the savagery our nation employed against its original inhabitants. To you, this curmudgeon apologizes.

But I do urge the rest of you, as you consume your turkey and pie, to not forget what happened to the Native Americans soon after that first Thanksgiving.


James Utt was last seen trying to poke holes in the Macy’s Day parade balloons.


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  1. As always, James Utt does speak from the heart. And I agree in spades about the guys laying around with bloated stomachs while the women clean a myriad of dishes. I think Thanksgiving should be pizza and paper plate day!

  2. I agree James Utt, especially about Native Americans,
    But I believe the the arguing and bad behavior is the exception and not the rule. As far as gluttony, you can always prepare a vegan dish…..(Oh never mind) that would just lead to mockery and more arguing!!

  3. James Utt has written a thoughtful piece.

    At the first such harvest feast, Native Americans actually outnumbered the pilgrims almost two to one! One might make the argument about Native Americans in regards to other holidays as well. I do think that Thanksgiving as a national holiday stems from The Civil War…and has other meanings as well. As to eating lots of festive food, drinking too much, and laying around popping Zantac and watching the NFL’s Dallas Cowboys and Detroit Lions play somebody……well it is a good excuse.

    And people get free day off from work. Not all bad. Maybe we could create another holiday to celebrate a historical event that was not also not quite how the legend goes. Maybe something in place of Columbus Day….which one might argue is not exactly celebrated by Native Americans either!

  4. For myself it’s a time to remember the loved ones that aren’t here to celebrate this holiday. It’s a time of fond memories and feeling loved.

  5. Although the first Thanksgiving in a British colony was observed at Jamestown Virginia on Dec. 4th, 1619 — the current holiday is the one promoted in the nineteenth century to become a national one and cement the country behind a common origin myth. Historians have been working to debunk this myth for generations with limited success as you are well aware. There is another, longer history for days of thanks rooted in the English Reformation. As a counter to the myriad of feast days in the Catholic calendar, days of thanks were to be declared when something good happened (eg. defeating the Spanish Armada) AND days of fasting were declared when something bad happened (natural disasters for example). Imagine if this had taken hold in the colonies.
    Again, I enjoy reading your work – thoughtful and acerbic with a writerly flair.

  6. Your column always brings in a new (maybe in this case not new, but often overlooked) perspective, which I really appreciate. Thanks!

  7. In my case it was an aunt who was the intolerant one. During the Civil Rights Era I made the comment that a denial of rights to one was the denial of rights to all. Well, that was a night to remember.


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