It’s not easy to celebrate Thanksgiving in Berlin. In a normal year, Berliners from the US would fly across the ocean to be with their families. But a deadly virus is preventing that — it’s all Zoom and dinner for one.
This year I was asked to organise a Thanksgiving dinner for my Berlin family. This left me wondering how I would explain the tradition to German kids who have never heard of the Pilgrims or the Mayflower?
People growing up in the US are taught these myths before they can speak. Remember all the turkeys made out of construction paper? But I am not going to repeat fairy tales about Indigenous people and colonists getting together for a feast. This is just imperialist propaganda.
German children have heard of Indianer. In fact, as Exberliner has reported, Germans have a weird fetish for the indigenous peoples of North America. Thanks to Karl May, Indianer*innen tend to be seen as fictional characters, along the lines of Klingons, Elves or Na’vi. So most Germans don’t seem to have a problem with “Indian” costumes at festivals – which, by the way, is not cool.
But the kids in my family are just entering school. I don’t think the kids are ready to hear how millions of Indigenous people were killed by germ warfare and systematic massacres. So how to make the Thanksgiving story child-friendly?
First, Thanksgiving has always just been a harvest festival, and just about every agricultural society has something like this. So this is a good starting point. It is autumn and we are thankful — thankful that the crops came in, and for other stuff, too.
Second, we can talk about acts of Indigenous resistance to colonialism. We can say we are thankful for the bravery of the people of Standing Rock, who fought back against oil companies who are trying to cover the whole world in smog and sludge. We can be thankful for the people in Ecuador who fought back against a corrupt government. And so many other examples
Third, we can talk about the actual history of the holiday. Thanksgiving did not start in 1621, or whenever. The national holiday was proclaimed by Abraham Lincoln in 1863, in the middle of the American Civil War. And I think this is actually a very appropriate story for children.
You see, about 160 years ago — that’s about twice as old as your grandpa — there was a big war in Amerika. There were evil people in the South who kept human beings as slaves. These slaves lived in miserable conditions. They were bought and sold, they could not go where they wanted, they had to work their whole lives and they were often beaten or even killed.
The people in the North decided that slavery needed to end. But the people in the South said no. So a big war started. The enslavers, who wore grey uniforms, had some initial successes. They pushed into Northern territories. This evil army would even kidnap Black people and take them back to the South to be slaves.
The South did not need to “win” the war exactly. It was enough to break the will of the people of the North to keep fighting. And the war was very difficult. Lots of people thought it was not worth the sacrifice. There was rioting in New York City by people who did not want to join the army.
In the summer of 1863, there was a big battle in Pennsylvania, near a small town called Gettysburg. The fighting was very hard — it lasted three whole days. The soldiers from the North, who wore blue uniforms, were finally able to beat back the enslavers. The blue army beat the grey army.
Soon the liberating armies advanced into the South. Black people rose up and joined the fighting. Before long, the enslavers had to surrender, and all the slaves were free. Everyone was very happy. And so the president, Abraham Lincoln, declared a day of Thanksgiving.
That is the real history of this holiday. And I think we can celebrate that. It’s a story that’s easy for a six-year-old to understand, right?
On Thursday, we can give thanks for past struggles against racism. We can give thanks for the people today who are struggling against oppression and exploitation. Personally, I am really thankful to every single person who joined the largest protests in the history of the United States this summer. This is an example these kids should learn from.