Thanksgiving a key part of US national identity


Thanksgiving a key part of US national identity


For most Western countries, the long holiday season begins in mid-December and goes into January, but in the US the holiday season starts this week. On the third Thursday of November, Americans begin the festive season with the holiday of Thanksgiving. It is a celebration of a story that is almost 400 years old, but, more importantly, it is the celebration of national ideals of unity and gratefulness.

Thanksgiving typically commemorates a communal celebration made by English Puritan pilgrims and members of the Wampanoag Native American tribe. Though several theories exist about the origins of the holiday, the typical thought is that the original event took place in the late autumn of 1621 as the English and the Native Americans celebrated together a long summer of farming and preparing for the coming winter. Americans remember that first Thanksgiving today as a time when neighbors feasted together in celebration of their hard work, their bounty, and their community. Whether or not this history is entirely true, the national memory of the first Thanksgiving is the reason Americans celebrate.

The Puritans who settled in Massachusetts beginning in 1620 were not the first British to settle in what would become the US, but they were the early Americans who stand out in the national consciousness. The Massachusetts Puritans had an early concept of democratic-style government. While they did fight bloody wars with Native Americans, they also worked in peace with some of the tribes they found in America. The Puritans were religious zealots, but it was an offshoot of the Massachusetts colony that first brought religious freedom to America. And the Puritans’ descendants in Massachusetts were the instigators of the American Revolution against Britain. In other words, Thanksgiving has come to represent that which Americans aspire to: Community, liberty, hard work, and gratitude.

The first Thanksgiving may be mostly myth, but that does not make it any less important for the national identity. Nations must have binding concepts and binding traditions. Thanksgiving is a secular holiday celebrated by Americans of all religions, but it has become almost religious in itself. There are rituals tied to Thanksgiving, family gatherings, and large feasts. Businesses close across the country. Immigrants who have been in the US for only weeks celebrate it, as do descendants of those pilgrims who settled 398 years ago. I have celebrated Thanksgiving across the US and in three other countries, including Saudi Arabia. It is something most Americans do with religious loyalty.

This year, Thanksgiving comes amid a debate raging on either side of the Atlantic about the meaning of nationalism. A couple of weeks ago, President Donald Trump said, “I’m proud of this country and I call that ‘nationalism’.” 

For the US and for Trump, Thanksgiving and other reminders of national unity and accomplishments can be a source of pride.

Ellen R. Wald

The president of France, Emmanuel Macron, then used that line to attack Trump after a dispute that was originally about defense spending. At the Paris commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the First World War armistice, Macron said: “Nationalism is a betrayal of patriotism. In saying ‘our interests first, whatever happens to the others,’ you erase the most precious thing a nation can have, that which makes it live, that which causes it to be great and that which is most important: Its moral values.” This was a clear jab at Trump, which led to angry tweets and more rhetoric.

The dispute between the US and France is itself inconsequential. The two countries have been allies for 250 years and will continue to be. Each has saved the other on the battlefield more than once.

What is remarkable is how the dispute highlights the differences in national thought. In France, nationalism is seen as a negative, because it is a European country still scarred by the effects of hyper-nationalism in the first half of the 20th century. Until about 65 years ago, nationalism in Europe led to immoral expansionism and imperialism, aggressive martial priorities and vicious bloodshed. The evils and folly of Germany’s nationalism are most well-known, but France, Spain, Italy, Britain, Austria and others participated as well. 

The US does not have this history. With one major exception — the Philippines — the US did not engage in colonialism. The US did not participate in the causes of either world war; it only helped end the wars. The US does not have a history of immoral nationalism, and for Americans nationalism is not about conquest or national superiority (with the glaring exception of America’s brutal mistreatment of its own native people). But Americans do recognize, in school and in civic life, that the country has engaged in cruelty as well. Nevertheless, for America and for Trump, Thanksgiving and other reminders of national unity and accomplishment can be a source of pride. 

When the US was founded, it needed to build a national identity. Thanksgiving was part of that identity. As the historian Benedict Anderson explained, modern nations need to create “imagined communities” to unite the people. Nations must accept their failings, but they must find sources of pride to celebrate. 


  • Ellen R. Wald, Ph.D. is a historian and author of “Saudi, Inc.” She is the president of Transversal Consulting and also teaches Middle East history and policy at Jacksonville University. Twitter: @EnergzdEconomy
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