Like most American holidays, Thanksgiving is part myth, and part truth. It's true that the Puritans who landed at Plymouth Rock had some sort of harvest celebration in the fall of 1621, it's far less likely that they called it "Thanksgiving." A "Thanksgiving' in the Puritan sense was a somber day of church hymns and religious observance. Whatever happened in 1621, it was probably a fun day (or week), with beer and cider, lots of food, games, and general merriment.
When I see Pagans hesitate to celebrate Thanksgiving I shake my head in general puzzlement. Thanksgiving is essentially a Harvest Celebration, and most closely resembles harvest festivals in rural England. While I could be totally off-base, to me, harvest celebrations are essentially Pagan. At a harvest fest you celebrate the bounty of the earth. You can "give thanks" to whatever deity you want for that bounty, but harvest celebrations have got to be some of the oldest rituals in the history of humanity, they certainly pre-date Yahweh and Christianity.
There are some Christian overtones to Thanksgiving, it's hard to overlook the Pilgrims, but the Pilgrims of Thanksgiving are more myth than truth. In school we were always led to believe that the Pilgrims were noble religious nomads, who were looking for "religious freedom." Of course "religious freedom" to a Puritan meant "Religious freedom for Puritans, not for anyone else," but why do I have to give a shit about the truth? Why can't I celebrate the myth for one day, and reflect on religious freedom?
Thanksgiving is a holiday about the myth. It's a holiday about seeing America for what we want it to be, not what it always is. Yes, there were Native Americans at the Harvest Home celebration in 1621, but the Pilgrims and Wampanoag Tribe weren't really friends, they were more like reluctant allies. The Thanksgiving myth urges us to overcome our differences, and celebrate our shared commonalities. I know that Native American and Pilgrim children probably didn't run around Plymouth together like best friends (despite fifth grade film strips telling me they did); but wouldn't it be great if they had? There were probably no handshakes in 1621, but the idea that there were, and that Pilgrims and Wampanoags saw the world as something to share* is a heartening one.
I don't want to anyone out there to think that I'm in favor of ignoring history. I'm not a fan of the Puritans, and I'm still sickened by European and American atrocities committed against Native Americans (the big ones being treating them as fourth class citizens, stealing from them, lying to them, the killing, etc.) But to me, "The Pilgrims" are more like Santa Claus than real historical figures, they've been romanticized so much that most of the "real" has been taken out of them. I'm all about myth if it can teach a truth, and the truth is that we overcome racism and cultural differences and celebrate our shared heritage together. That's a lot of what we were led to believe Thanksgiving is about when we were young.
Despite the rather dubious origins of Thanksgiving, I'm going to celebrate it with gusto this year. I have good friends coming over, and there's a twenty pound turkey already in the fridge just waiting to be roasted. Like I do on most holidays, I'm going to ignore the total truth of the day and focus on what we want that holiday to be. I'm going to toast America and continue to hope that we will all one day live up to the noble ideas that inspire us all. I'm going to celebrate my friends, my life, the blessings I've received, my beautiful wife, my two kitties, and of course football.**
*The Wampanoag Tribe probably did see land as something to share. Private ownership of property was a concept they didn't totally understand.
**Thanksgiving Day Football Predictor 2011:
Lions 38 Packers 30
Cowboys 24 Dolphins 17
49'ers 31 Ravens 28