Every national holiday, Americans are faced with the challenge to figure out how to celebrate the holiday while at the same time remembering our country’s history – except for those who don’t get on Facebook, or the internet at all, and don’t read or watch the news. The rest of us face a message that gets louder every year, claiming that the version of history that we know is flawed, has been tampered with to sound, look, feel, and even smell, better than it actually was. They use words like whitewashing, and revisionism.
And they stand for victims.
Which is really annoying, because Americans tend to think of themselves as people who help victims, people who care, but Americans are also very proud of, and attached to their traditions. Traditions that bring family together. Traditions that are defined by the enjoyment of life, of food, of giving, of family, of taking a moment to slow down, to watch some football, and buying things with major discounts.
It’s annoying that some people go out of their way to tell us that our traditions are steeped in bloodshed. It’s like an attack on our family values, that are basically based on all good things passed down from generation to generation. And now those unhappy people assert that those good family values are contaminated with lies, or worse. And we don’t want to care, but we do, because we hate any story that ends with victims dying without getting their revenge. But what do we do with that information when we identify with the very people upon which they would have exacted their revenge?
And it happens with so may uniquely American holidays.
For my part, I do spend some time listening to the arguments, the information that pops up in my Facebook feed, read a few articles, revisit my own thoughts and feelings regarding a particular holiday, and see if I can’t find a way to do something for the victims of the world, or maybe just stop doing something that others may find offensive, while at the same time staying true to what I believe, not compromising if it means being fake or dishonest, and while all of those thoughts are stewing in my big cauldron, which I have to trade in for a bigger one every other year or so, I know that in the end, it will all come down to one very important question: How will we personally celebrate the holiday?
First, how can we be certain that this newly presented version of history and the holiday is the correct one? And if we determine it is, will we abandon celebrating it altogether because it was based on false information?
Will we continue celebrating it like we always have because tradition is more important than the history behind it?
Is it possible to change the way we celebrate it so that it is true to the actual history that is at its root? And if so, would we still celebrate it?
To put it another way:
How much of the traditions we grew up with will we keep?
How open are we to hearing that the traditions we hold aren’t as wholesome as we think?
Is it possible to return to a purer form of the traditions we hold? And if so, would we still want to observe them?
I believe that, like me, more and more people are asking a different sort of question, and it comes out of that jumble of thoughts that not only require the work of scholars to sort out, but also can’t hope to yield any satisfying answers. And so we get practical about it: how will we celebrate today?
It’s not that history isn’t important; it is, and this question comes out of us wrestling with that history, which guides us even as we try to find meaning that speaks to us today in each holiday.
It’s not that we don’t care about the victims of centuries past, or the collective impact that oppression has on the descendants of those victims today; we do, which is why we are asking: how will we celebrate today, knowing what we do about the past, wanting to honor it while not being chained to it, and wanting to build traditions with meaning and values that are in tune with who we are today?
It’s not that we don’t care about how things have been done in the past; we do, for there is wisdom and richness to be found in the ways of the past that have endured generations; but if past traditions no longer speak to us, if their observance leaves us empty or requires us to say and do things that do not represent the people that we are today, then their riches are as useless and foreign to us as gold, or deeds to lands were to the indigenous people of our land.
We can do better.
And I think this applies to all aspects of our lives. To our relationships. Our marriages or partnerships. Our parenting. Our hobbies. The way we organize our time. The way we keep our house.
Assess the old.
Hold on to what is good.
Discard the rest.
Create a new tradition. A new way.
Many of us are the new pioneers: navigating strange lands, learning new ways to live, new ways to interact with people that are sometimes very different from us (our own kids, for one), learning that there is so much more to the world than what we have been shown.
Let us learn from our pioneering forefathers and foremothers, and adopt a posture of acceptance and respect toward those we could easily trample and enslave (our own kids, for one).
Our children’s children may take what was handed to them, shake their heads in dismay, throw out what doesn’t fit with them and their reality, and craft a new tradition, a new way, from what’s left.
I hope they do.
It starts with us.
Jeremy Martin-Weber is the proud father of 6 inspiring girls, and is 19 years into a love story with his partner, Jessica Martin-Weber.