INFOGRAPHIC COURTESY OF MORGAN HUBER / THE SNAPPER
The majority of college students celebrate Thanksgiving, but received minimal education on its origins, a recent survey says. The survey, conducted by editors at The Snapper, asked young people from across the country about their views, education and traditions surrounding the controversial Fall holiday.
For millions of Americans, Thanksgiving is one of the largest and most highly anticipated holidays of the year. Held on the fourth Thursday of each November, Thanksgiving today marks an opportunity for people to relax and settle down as they reunite with their loved ones and celebrate what they are grateful or “thankful” for.
“We celebrate just to gather with family we haven’t seen in a long time and to eat together,” says Michael Smith-Taylor, a sophomore at Millersville University, who filled out the survey.
A Millersville student named Bree also stated that Thanksgiving is “just a tradition … we always enjoy the food and getting together. It’s dying down, but we have done it every year so it would be odd to stop.”
Although Thanksgiving is a major federal holiday, it appears to not be a huge favorite among students, mostly due to concerns over its origins and lack of education or sincerity in understanding and valuing the holiday. While 90% of the survey’s respondents claim they and their families celebrate Thanksgiving, an estimated 70% received either inaccurate or minimal information on the holiday’s purpose and history, if at all.
“Our family doesn’t really discuss the origins of Thanksgiving that much,” says Becca Hoyer, a freshman at Arcadia University. “Perhaps we should be more aware and change the way we think about it.”
Even today, historians debate the exact origins of the day designated to “give thanks,” however most trace “Turkey day” back to colonial times. As far back as the early 17th century, European settlers in Virginia and New England participated in days of fasting to appeal to God, and also held feasts to celebrate the harvest season, when crops were most plentiful, especially in times of devastation and death due to the harsh conditions of living in unfamiliar and undeveloped land.
Most students in the United States are taught that the first Thanksgiving encompassed a feast with the Pilgrims and Native Americans. While this may be partially true, the childhood tale only covers the basic components of the historic holiday and does not accurately represent Native-European relations during colonial times.
In recent years, families also refrained from celebrating due to isolation and financial struggles brought upon by COVID-19, which left many unable or reluctant to organize a feast at home or travel far to visit relatives.
“We have personally stopped celebrating due to the Pandemic,” says Sanai Browning, a freshman. “We’ve never celebrated it as much as we would for Christmas or Easter, and we usually just use that day to just relax and get ready for Christmas.”
Even if renditions of the first Thanksgiving are historically accurate, many argue that it is only a singular positive event intended to overshadow an extensive period of colonization, including centuries of abuse and genocide against the indigenous population of North America.
In the survey, several college students raised concerns over the holiday’s sugarcoating of the treatment toward Native Americans in the United States, with many claiming that their school curriculum ignored the atrocities suffered in the past and present by Native Americans.
“The way it’s taught in schools is inaccurate to the actual events and often paints a much more palatable picture for white families,” says a senior at Millersville, who chose to remain anonymous. “I find it to be really disrespectful to indigenous peoples, and overall don’t see the point in celebrating it.”
Hostility towards Native Americans is evident right in the backyard of campus. Manor Township, located southeast of Millersville, originated after a large settlement of Susquehannocks were massacred, with European colonists subsequently claiming the land as their home. The alley behind what is now the Fulton Theater was also the site of a 1763 massacre, where a group of European residents known as the Paxtang boys slaughtered dozens of Conestoga Indian men, women, and children. Tragedies like these are reasons why some choose not to celebrate out of respect for lives lost in colonization.
Others recognize Thanksgiving as a day clouded with a dark past, but instead choose to see it as an opportunity to promote gratitude and better relationships across cultures.
“I think it’s a very complex holiday that is often portrayed inaccurately, but at the end of the day, it is still traditionally a day to get together and eat,” states college sophomore Rose Mattaboni. “Along with this, there aren’t many days where my entire family is free to meet up like Thanksgiving or Christmas, even if not everybody celebrates.”
Another reason some respondents of the survey either reluctantly or choose not to celebrate Thanksgiving is due to politics or similar disagreements with family. In the aftermath of a hotly contested and debated Midterm Election, people may feel uncomfortable facing relatives on the opposite end of the political spectrum. Some students, however, see a silver lining.
“As frustrating as it can be, discussing politics or modern events at holidays with family members of different beliefs is a chance to expand each others’ viewpoints,” says Shaun Lucas, Editor-in-Chief of The Snapper.
Regardless of whether or not someone chooses to celebrate Thanksgiving, there are opportunities to make the holiday more inclusive, or otherwise getting something more positive out of the holiday season. Providing more expansive and accurate information on colonial history, emphasizing gratitude and community service, and checking in on family and friends are great ways to make “Turkey Day” something special.