Myth with a Side of Mashed PotatoesMichael M. Guevara
Like most kids ushered though elementary school in the days when the Charlie Brown holiday specials aired on television once a year and if you missed them, you just had to wait until next year, I learned the myth of Thanksgiving like it was the gospel truth.
We participated in all the rituals—turkey art made from traced hands, pilgrim hats of construction paper, and Indian vests made from paper grocery bags. Back then we weren't enlightened enough to respect the cultural heritage of the people we made into a cast of minor characters in the great American Thanksgiving fairy tale we dished out every year along with our cranberry dressing, mashed potatoes, and pumpkin pie.
But the story of Thanksgiving is much more nuanced and complex.
And while it might not be an academic treatise on the historical veracity of Thanksgiving, the children’s book Thank You, Sarah! The Woman Who Saved Thanksgiving by Laurie Halse Anderson is a delightful peek into some of the history behind the narrative of Thanksgiving we celebrate on the last Thursday of the November, which you'll discover wasn't a thing until 1863 when Abraham Lincoln made Thanksgiving a national holiday.
Thank You, Sarah! tells the story about how Sarah Hale—who was the first female magazine editor in America and published American authors such as Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Edgar Allan Poe and composed “Mary Had a Little Lamb”—spent 38 years writing letter after letter to presidents such as Zachary Taylor, Millard Fillmore, James Buchanan, and Abraham Lincoln campaigning for Thanksgiving to become a national holiday.
Anderson’s children’s book is an entertaining tale that mixes in a fair and fun amount of Thanksgiving related puns and folds in a healthy dose of American history wrapped around a Thanksgiving theme. It’s the kind of book that students from elementary to high school will find informative and entertaining.
But if you are looking for something with all the academic humph of a second serving of stuffing, pair Thank You, Sarah! with Philip Deloria’s article “The Invention of Thanksgiving.” Deloria’s article is a thoughtful and introspective read to include during American Indian/Alaska Native Heritage month because in a deeply academic dive with a dollop of sarcasm, Deloria challenges the myth of Thanksgiving still presented as fact.
“If today’s teachers aim for less pageantry and a slightly more complicated history, many students still complete an American education unsure about the place of Native people in the nation’s past—or in its present. Cap the season off with Thanksgiving, a turkey dinner, and a fable of interracial harmony. Is it any wonder that by the time the holiday arrives a lot of American Indian people are thankful that autumn is nearly over?”
Deloria even mentions Sarah Hale in his article, hence the idea of pairing Anderson’s book with Deloria’s article for high school students, but fair warning, Deloria is a Harvard history professor, and he sounds like one as he confronts the traditional celebration of Thanksgiving.
“The new story aligned neatly with the defeat of American Indian resistance in the West and the rising tide of celebratory regret that the anthropologist Renato Rosaldo once called ‘imperialist nostalgia.’ Glorifying the endurance of white Pilgrim founders diverted attention from the brutality of Jim Crow and racial violence, and downplayed the foundational role of African slavery. The fable also allowed its audience to avert its eyes from the marginalization of Asian and Latinx labor populations, the racialization of Southern European and Eastern European immigrants, and the rise of eugenics. At Thanksgiving, white New England cheerfully shoved the problematic South and West off to the side, and claimed America for itself.”
But just as the Thanksgiving meal isn’t a meal for wimps and the diet conscious, Deloria’s article is an engaging opportunity for students to cut their teeth on a complex text that will give them a heaping helping of new Thanksgiving knowledge to impress and possibly annoy their friends and family with at the Thanksgiving table this year.
Download this lesson to have an engaging classroom activity on Thanksgiving.
Michael Méndez Guevara is a former high school journalism and English teacher who spent his time in the classroom helping students see themselves as writers and fall in love with reading through the world of young adult literature. As an educational sales consultant with Perfection Learning®, Michael works with teachers and schools on improving their literacy instruction and providing resources to help students achieve academic success. He has taught elementary school, middle school, and high school and has worked as a district level leader and served on the Texas state standards revision committee that developed the state’s current literacy standards. He is the father of three adult sons, the youngest a student at the University of Kansas—Rock Chalk! Michael is working on a professional development book for literacy educators and currently has agents reading the manuscript of his young adult novel, The Closest Thing to a Normal Life. When he's not reading, writing, or running, Michael is fully committed to watching as much Law & Order as possible.