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Thanksgiving Day, History or Tradition?


Between Plymouth and St. Agustin

By Diego Rodríguez Sánchez-oped | 11/25/2014, 4:03 p.m.
Thanksgiving Day, History or Tradition?
El Día de Acción de Gracias según el humorista Caicedo | Caicedo

When in United States you talk about the fact that meant the beginning of Thanksgiving Day, there’s always a reference to a meal that pilgrims and Wampanoag natives shared in 1621, at Plymouth Rock, Massachusetts, thanking a good harvest. But this story is not accepted by everyone. Michael Gannon is a history professor in the University of Florida, and in Massachusetts he’s known as the Grinch who stole Thanksgiving. This is because his studies reveal that the first Thanksgiving has nothing to do with the story of the pilgrims; instead, it was Spaniard Pedro Menéndez from Aviles, who in 1565 for the first time celebrated a catholic service at St. Agustin, Florida, where he shared a meal with a local tribe.

This starts quite a big dilemma. Accepting Gannon’s story apparently drives us to stop celebrating Thanksgiving Day, because Spaniards weren’t who founded the country and culture of the United States. On the other hand, not accepting Gannon’s version leads to continue comfortably numb. This last idea looks like the easier one, but there is a philosophical reasoning that sustains that even though Gannon’s version is accepted, there is no reason to stop celebrating Thanksgiving Day.

Having a walk through Western philosophy, the first reasoning that leads us to accept the tradition without considering historical matters is cultural relativism. This school of thought suggests that all truth is local, and that moral and ethical systems vary from culture to culture but all are equally valid. If ideas of “good” and “bad” vary from one culture to another, it isn’t hard to defend that a tradition should be celebrated in a place, even though it has no validity to other cultures or other forms of thought. We can think of this as an approach to an answer, but not as a complete one because cultural relativism makes reference to ethics, not to truth. Historicism is what really defends that Thanksgiving Day has to be celebrated as it is, even though the facts of its beginning might be wrong.

German philosopher Wilhem Dilthey, one of the principal thinkers of historicism, used to divide science in two parts. The first part is natural sciences, which are those that study reality as perceived by senses, a group where history can be included. The second part is human sciences which study human reality, where culture can be included. These human sciences are not only completely valid, but they even deemed superior when compared with natural sciences, because they attempt to enlighten the human beings knowledge of themselves. So, while historians study history as a natural science, having to attend to scientific criteria as “this is what really happened”, culture and traditions should be studied as a human science that postulates that a human being is not a steady reality but a result of a historical evolution.

The celebration of Thanksgiving Day belongs to the field of human sciences, so it shouldn’t be changed when it’s historical basis are transformed, instead it should be kept as a result of the evolution that the human beings have been consolidating through their existence.