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In Search of the True Meaning of Thanksgiving

What is the true meaning of Thanksgiving? In this essay, Nathan Palmer tries to answer this question by exploring how symbols are used within a society to communicate meaning.

Thanksgiving Fest on Table

What does Thanksgiving mean to you? Does the word conjure up thoughts of turkey, pumpkin pie, family, football, shopping, Christmas or something else?

I have celebrated Thanksgiving my entire life. Every year I look forward to cooking a feast for my family and friends. To me, Thanksgiving is a chance to take a break from the chaos that is my life, surround myself with my loved ones, and tell them how thankful I am to have them in my life. That’s what Thanksgiving means to me.

At the same time, I know that Thanksgiving means something very different to other people. To some Thanksgiving holds religious significance. To others Thanksgiving is a day for Americans to puff out our chests and celebrate the greatness of our nation. To others Thanksgiving is a painful reminder of the genocide of Native Americans at the hands of European colonists. To others still Thanksgiving is just another Thursday[1].

If Thanksgiving can mean so many things, does it really mean anything? Does it have a true meaning? Before we can answer this question we have to talk about how social symbols like holidays get their meanings in the first place.

Symbols: The Basic Element of Culture

To be a human is to make and understand meaning. To the anthropologist Leslie A. White that is our defining feature (White 1949/2005). Other animals can respond to stimuli, but they can’t understand the meaning the symbols are intended to communicate. Put simply, dogs don’t understand sarcasm or jest or things said in a tongue and cheek manner. For other animals everything is taken at face value, but for humans symbols can have deeper meanings.

By symbol I mean anything that is used to communicate a shared meaning. Language in this sense is a set of symbols that we draw and utter to communicate meanings to one another. Language is arguably the most common set of symbols used in a society, but it is not the only set of symbols we use to communicate meaning. We contort our faces and our bodies to communicate meaning. We use colors, shapes, images and every other aspect of design to communicate meaning. Nearly everything that is around you at this moment has been designed to communicate meaning. For instance, think about how an airport is designed to communicate to travelers where to go even if they cannot read the signs or find anyone who speaks their language.

But here is the most important part of all of this, the symbols themselves are meaningless. That is, a symbol does not have inherent meaning. When something is inherent that means it is permanently linked together with something else and they are impossible to separate. If symbols had inherent meaning, then we could never separate the meaning from the symbol and the symbol would always be interpreted to have the same meaning regardless of how it was used or who was interpreting it.

You already know this to be true. If Thanksgiving had an inherent meaning, then it would mean the same thing to all people everywhere, but it doesn’t. If words had inherent meaning, then we couldn’t use the word bad to both describe something as being below our expectations and something as being above our expectations. “That Transformers movie was bad,” means something entirely different than saying, “Muhammad Ali was a bad man in the boxing ring.”

Or think about the supposed inherent meanings in colors. Today we associate blue with boys and masculinity and pink with girls and femininity, but it wasn’t always so. Previous to the 1940s, the color assignments were flipped. For instance, In 1918 a trade magazine for Earnshaw’s Infants’ Department said, “The generally
accepted rule is pink for the boys, and blue for the girls. The reason is that pink, being a more decided and stronger color, is more suitable for the boy, while blue, which is more delicate and dainty, is prettier for the girl” (Paloletti 2012; Maglaty 2011). To Westerners purple is a regal color and associated with royalty, but in other parts of the world, yellow is most associated with royalty (White 1949/2005).

The point here is that words, colors, and other symbols do not have an inherent meaning. They mean what we are socialized to believe they mean. Symbols are empty until we fill them with meaning.

Is There a True Meaning of Thanksgiving?

Thanksgiving, like every other symbol, does not have an inherent meaning. Therefore, it cannot have a true meaning.

To some Thanksgiving is a perverse celebration of genocide and the European take over of this country. To others, Thanksgiving is a day to get together as a family, eat good food, and give thanks for all the good things in our life. To the majority of the people on earth outside the States, Thanksgiving is just another unremarkable day.

The meaning of Thanksgiving is what we make it. If you plan on celebrating this Thanksgiving, then I hope you make the most of it.

Dig Deeper:

  1. What does Thanksgiving mean to you? How did you learn to give it that meaning?
  2. If symbols only mean what we collectively agree they mean, does that mean they aren’t real? If so, then what makes something real?
  3. Think of another symbol in our culture that has multiple meanings. How did this symbol come to have multiple meanings? You may need to do a little Googling to find the answer to this question.
  4. Currently a debate is raging over the name of the football team in Washington D.C. Describe the different sides of the debate and each of their positions (if you’re not up on the debate, then do a quick Google search). How does this debate illustrate the concepts discussed in this article?


  • Maglaty, Jeanee. 2011. “When Did Girls Start Wearing Pink?” Retrieved Nov. 24, 2014 (http://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/when-did-girls-start-wearing-pink–1370097/)
  • Paloletti, Jo B. 2012. Pink and Blue: Telling the Boys from the Girls in America. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press
  • White, Leslie A. 2005. The Science of Culture: A Study of Man and Civilization. Clifton Corners, NY: Percheron Press/Eliot Werner Publications.

  1. The rest of the world doesn’t really celebrate American Thanksgiving. I mean, if you’re not Canadian, did you celebrate Canadian Thanksgiving on Monday October 13th of this year? Or was it just another regular ole’day?  ↩