Should We Celebrate Thanksgiving?

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Thanksgiving is perhaps the most iconic American tradition.  An entire holiday dedicated to graciousness, appreciation, and thankfulness for what we have.  But Thanksgiving has transformed over the centuries and now has the dubious honor of being called the “deadliest holiday of the year,” and substance misuse is a big reason.

The modern American Thanksgiving tradition is traced to a now debated and sparsely documented 1621 celebration where Pilgrims celebrated with Native Americans, who, according to Wikipedia and many other resources, had helped them get through the previous winter by giving them food in that time of scarcity.  This imagery of an iconic “feast” has become ingrained in our culture and is reinforced from a young age.  So, naturally, to give thanks and remembrance today, we overindulge.

And our decadence isn’t without consequence.

According to Forbes, doctors have long known that the US mortality rate spikes annually around Thanksgiving. It’s the kickoff to what is known as “heart attack season” in the medical industry because rates remain elevated through the winter.

A few years ago, Forbes also reported that there were 764 crashes involving a fatality during Thanksgiving 2012.  And that doesn’t include the nearly 50,000 non-fatal car accidents that occurred also.  To make matters worse, at least 40% of passengers killed were involved in crashes with drunk drivers, and about 60% of those passengers weren’t wearing their safety belts.

These increased morbidity rates are avoidable, too.  The overindulgence of food, alcohol, and other intoxicants is regarded as the primary cause behind the holiday’s deadly reputation.  Yet, we don’t shy away from keeping this tradition alive, even if it’s killing people.

It would be one thing if Thanksgiving held spiritual or religious significance or led to personal betterment.  But perhaps the most peculiar aspect of our obsession with the tradition of Thanksgiving is its historical accuracy.

Recently, the holiday has drawn flak for depicting a misrepresentation of what occurred.  The idea that Native Americans were so kind as to offer us up their land and food has become a subject of disbelief, and many are beginning to view our version of Thanksgiving as an offensive celebration.  A holiday that was originally observed by fasting and prayer has become a gluttonous get-together.

Perhaps the most telling sign of how we view Thanksgiving can be found by examining how we choose to observe it.  For instance, a popular addition to the Thursday tradition of feasting has become “Blackout Wednesday.” A simple web search reveals the popularity of consuming alcohol heavily the day before Thanksgiving…the day when most people are traveling in America.

Another popular addition to the celebration of the Great Feast is to smoke massive amounts of cannabis beforehand, an event known as “Danksgiving.” This version of the holiday can also include infusing food items with cannabis as well.  The idea of Danksgiving has spread to the point that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is now cautioning people who use cannabis on Thanksgiving against driving. The trend first became apparent in 2006, and web searches for “Danksgiving” have spiked every year as the popularity grows.

It’s not hard to see that Thanksgiving today is a far cry from what it started as.  And now that we’re dealing with Covid-19, the holiday may carry more risk than ever.  Despite advancements in vaccination and declining case numbers, the virus is still a serious threat.  And while the CDC isn’t recommending an outright cancellation of holiday plans like last year, they have suggested “safer ways to celebrate the holidays” on their website.

But what the CDC fails to warn us about is the increasing threat of substance misuse and its correlation with the holiday season.  Drug overdose deaths were recently reported to hit the highest total ever for a 12-month period in the US. We’ve begun to face the stark reality that the Covid-19 pandemic made America’s already horrific drug problem worse, and not just by a little.  At the end of 2020, drug overdose rates in the US were already up by more than 30%, according to CNN, as more than 93,000 people died last year from drug overdoses.

And this likely won’t be improving soon.  According to Marcel Gemme of, the holidays are notoriously hard on those who struggle with substance abuse.  Some sources report spikes as high as 22% during these times historically. Even those who don’t have an addiction will statistically consume more intoxicating substances during this period than any other time of year, particularly alcohol.

Thanksgiving is a tradition, but that doesn’t mean it’s a good one.  At some point, we will need to face the fact that the holiday isn’t just off base and out of touch, but it may be doing more harm than it does good.

But thankfully, most stores carry turkey year-round.

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