- History and Traditions: It’s Not About Pilgrims and “Indians”
- Harvest Festivals
- Is Thanksgiving a Pagan Holiday?
- Plays and Storytelling
- Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade
- Rivalry Games in College Football
Thanksgiving has been my favorite holiday since I got out of the “gimme” phase that put Christmas on top. Throughout my childhood, I had misgivings about Christmas and Easter, even Valentines Day—and I knew Halloween wasn’t right. I never questioned or had any spiritual stirrings about Thanksgiving. Recently, YouTuber TruthUnedited made a video about Thanksgiving being a pagan holiday, so I’ve decided to discuss it.
History and Traditions: It’s Not About Pilgrims and “Indians”
At this point, everyone should know that the relationship between the colonists and the native people was not the happy picture painted for the origin story of Thanksgiving. We know that Disney’s version of Pocahontas is not accurate. We know that countless native people were killed or relocated by settlers. It stands to reason that the holiday known as Thanksgiving probably didn’t start with a friendly dinner between native people and colonists.
The first official Thanksgiving was called on by George Washington in 1789 when he proclaimed a day of thanksgiving and prayer. There was actually no mention of a feast or of the Plymouth Thanksgiving that has become associated with the holiday. In his address, part of the reason for this public Thanksgiving was the establishment of a government that could “promote the knowledge and practice of true religion and virtue.” Washington’s proclamation was about the freedom establish by a democratic government, which included the freedom to choose how to worship. Washington’s Thanksgiving was only for that year and not the creation of an annual holiday.
…we have been enabled to establish constitutions of government for our safety and happiness, and particularly the national one now lately instituted; for the civil and religious liberty with which we are blessed… 👤 George Washington
It wasn’t until 1863, that Abraham Lincoln made Thanksgiving an annual national holiday tradition with a set day. His 1863 Thanksgiving proclamation made him the third president to call for a day of thanksgiving but the first do so consecutively. Lincoln’s first Thanksgiving proclamation (in 1862) was about Union victories over the Confederacy and actually occurred in April. Meanwhile, Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederate States, also called on people to celebrate a day of Thanksgiving for Confederate victories in September 1862. Davis had actually called on the Confederate States to observe a day of fasting in November 1861 for the war. Lincoln’s decision to standardize Thanksgiving in his 1863 proclamation was about bringing unity to the nation.
After Lincoln, a day of thanksgiving was celebrated every last Thursday of November until the time of Franklin Roosevelt. In 1939, he moved Thanksgiving up a Thursday so as to not interfere with Christmas shopping. It did not go over well and many states decided to stick with the last Thursday of the month. It wasn’t until December 1941 that the fourth Thursday of November was signed in to law as the official day to celebrate Thanksgiving.
Notably, discussion of “American values” and the idea of the first Thanksgiving with the Wampanoags in Plymouth, MA didn’t really start until the 1930s. When the refocusing of the holiday shifted, there were actually two places claiming to be the first site of Thanksgiving. Arguments have been made for Virginia, Massachusetts, and even Florida, being the birthplace of Thanksgiving.
The main complaint, spiritually, made against Thanksgiving in TruthUnedited’s video is that it is technically a harvest festival. Harvest festivals take place in any given region when the crops are ready to pick, usually between August and November—hence the name harvest. It is a celebration of the land’s abundance and a time to give thanks for the crops.
Before we talk about the spiritual aspects of harvest festivals, let’s pause to talk about why people celebrated the harvest. As a farmer, I can tell you that growing food is not as simple as sowing the seeds. They have to be planted at just the right time—this year I planted some things too early and when they sprouted, it was still too hot so they shriveled up; I planted some things too late and when it frosted it killed them before their fruit was able to ripen. Nutrients in the soil and rainfall, are other factors that can affect a crop. On top of that there are hungry animals (like deer and rabbits) who will take your crop before you can harvest it, as well as pests (like cut worms, spider mites, and locusts) who will kill your plants before they even produce fruit. Of the seeds I planted, maybe 60-70% actually sprang up, ~10% was consumed by animals and ~30% was killed by the weather. That means only about 20% of it made it to the table. In 2022, that’s fine because there is a grocery store down the street where I can buy food. In ancient times, there were no grocery stores. A bad harvest meant a rough winter at best and starvation at worst. A plentiful harvest was definitely something to celebrate.
The question is, who do you thank for your great harvest? Most ancients worshipped a pantheon of gods, of which one was deemed the god of harvest. The most well-known or relevant harvest deities are Tammuz (Sumerian), Osiris (Egyptians), Dagon (Canaanite), Hermes (Greek) and Saturn (Roman). Harvest festivals were dedicated to the god of the harvest. YHWH, the God of Israel, actually commanded them to have several feasts which if studied, coincide with the harvest season of Israel.
We remember Passover as symbolic of the Exodus and Pentecost is when they received the Ten Commandments (or when they received the Holy Spirit in the New Testament). However, Passover (and the Feast of Unleavened Bread, which follows it) coincides with when the first crop of barley would be ready in Israel. Pentecost coincides with the end of the barley harvest. Other crops harvested in Israel included grapes and olives, which are harvested in August and September—right at the beginning of that range for harvest festivals according to the dictionary. September coincides with the month of Tishrei, the month in which Rosh Hashannah (The Feast of Trumpets), Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement), and Sukkot (The Feast of Tabernacles) occur.
Some might say instead of celebrating the US’s Thanksgiving, we should celebrate the feasts of the Bible. The missing piece of that conversation is the fact that for many of those feasts, we were to offer our first-fruits (because they are harvest festivals) and the US has a different harvest season from Israel. Technically, most people aren’t actually farming so you could go to the grocery story and buy your feast off season (though the food won’t taste as good). However, if you were farming (as YHWH intended) this wouldn’t really make sense. That being said, the feasts of the Bible have deeper spiritual meaning beyond simply thankfulness for a harvest.
Is Thanksgiving a Pagan Holiday?
TruthUnited’s video links the holiday to ancient harvest festivals to make the claim that we are worshiping pagan gods by participating in the holiday, but a careful read of the presidential proclamations will quickly tell you that the holiday we call Thanksgiving originally had nothing to do with harvest festivals. Our modern Thanksgiving evolved in the opposite way of Christmas and Easter. In the case of Christmas, there were established traditions (e.g., caroling, decorating, etc.) for existing pagan festivals that were simply renamed or repurposed to create the new holiday. Easter is actually named for the pagan goddess it celebrates and, like Christmas, has a set of established traditions that are associated with the pagan holiday (e.g., Easter egg hunts, sunrise service actually being sun worship, etc.). Thanksgiving was a day for coming together in unity and expressing gratitude to God as a nation, that later became associated with a feast and a one sided version of history.
I have trouble viewing Thanksgiving as a pagan holiday because there really aren’t any practices associated with it. Let’s think of the traditions associated with Thanksgiving:
Plays and Storytelling
Schools have plays meant to indoctrinate us with a rosy version of the colonist’s relationship with native people. These types of plays are offensive to native people who experienced the horrors of colonization which are often swept under the rug in favor of this lie. I agree that this aspect of the holiday is problematic, though I’m not sure I’d call it pagan. If I had a child I wouldn’t let them participate in such things on principle. Honestly, though, the only Thanksgiving play I remember is from when I was four years old. Unlike Christmas and Easter where every church has some type of production to “get you in the spirit,” I’ve never seen anyone do a production for Thanksgiving.
Whatever the case, the promotion of the “First Thanksgiving” narrative is to foster the idea of diversity, inclusion, and unity. While the true history of this relationship does not match, the concept actually isn’t that far off from the actual reason Lincoln pushed to make it an annual holiday or the initial Thanksgiving proclamations and the initial proclamations which were about freedom, peace, and reconciliation.
Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade
Possibly the reason no one puts on productions for Thanksgiving is because they’d be competing with the annual Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. This parade actually started as a marketing campaign for Christmas in 1924 and was then called the Macy’s Christmas Parade.
Rivalry Games in College Football
Thanksgiving weekend is the traditional weekend for rivalry football games in the NCAA. Notable examples include my alma mater Clemson University vs University of South Carolina, the University of Alabama vs Auburn University, my other alma mater the University of Florida vs Florida State University, and the University of Texas at Austin vs. Texas A&M University. I didn’t know about this aspect of Thanksgiving until I went to a college that had an in-state rival. Regardless, there weren’t any football games during the ancient harvest festivals and the reason for these games being during the Thanksgiving holiday is about logistics. While sports teams are in the business of making money, hosting a game during Thanksgiving has the potential to both increase and decrease the number of people in attendance. On the one hand, many people are off and free to travel, specifically alumni. On the other hand, students are out of school and wish to return home to see family, and since most people are traveling the cost of travel during this time is expensive. To a certain extent, I believe the NCAA and universities want to decrease the number of people in attendance because these are often the most violent and dangerous games due to the rivalries. Also, on a more positive note, this is usually the last game of the season for teams that don’t make the playoffs; this makes for an exciting end of the season. While football may contain more violence than God would approve and be dangerous to the health of those playing, the act of playing or watching a game during Thanksgiving weekend is not likely connected to any pagan rituals
Most people enjoy a large feast, usually with family. While one could use this as an opportunity to warn about gluttony, family dinner is hardly a novel thing. Sure, in our modern era sitting at the dining room table for a “formal” meal is not the norm, but that is a recent development in history. For much of Thanksgiving’s history, families sat together at the dinner table every day to share a meal. My parents usually visit me for Thanksgiving if for nothing but the simple fact that we’re all off from work during that time. Even if we said “we’re not celebrating Thanksgiving,” we will still cook a meal together and sit at the table to eat dinner…
The most prominent tradition associated with Thanksgiving is what is served for dinner. Traditions vary by culture (re: the pumpkin pie vs. sweet potato pie debate), but things like turkey or macaroni and cheese are pretty standard. In the Deep South, collards are another traditional favorite. However, people modify the menu to suit their tastes; the menu isn’t dictated like the Passover. For example, no one in my family actually likes turkey, so I grew up eating fried chicken for Thanksgiving dinner. After my grandmothers died and Thanksgiving expanded from the immediate family to the whole family, each family became responsible for bringing a dish (like a potluck) so we usually have chicken, turkey, and ham—one year there was duck. As for the collards, there’s a split in my family about which type of greens actually taste the best. My dad leads team collards, my mom leads team turnip greens, and I lead team mustards, so all three are served at our Thanksgiving dinners. Now that I’m vegetarian, there is no meat on my Thanksgiving plate, so the only truly traditional food that remains is the macaroni and cheese—I highly doubt the ancient harvest festivals offered macaroni and cheese.
Nonetheless, the reason certain foods are associated with the holiday is because that’s when they are naturally harvested. I grew up on a farm and now have a garden of my own, so I know from experience that this is the season in which collards, pumpkins, sweet potatoes, etc. are harvested. Whether you celebrate a harvest festival or not, if you eat according to what naturally grows each season (which you should and would have been forced to do before the modern habit of importing food) these are the natural foods you would be eating for dinner from late October through December anyway.
- TruthUnedited. “Thanksgiving: Is it Pagan?”. YouTube. November 11, 2022; visited November 2022
- John T. Woolley. “Evolution of the Thanksgiving Proclamation”. The American Presidency Project. November 27, 2019; visited November 2022
- Abraham Lincoln. “Proclamation 88—Day of Public Thanksgiving for Victories During the Civil War”. The American Presidency Project. April 10, 1862; visited November 2022
- “Presidential Thanksgiving Proclamations”. Pilgrim Hall Museum; visited November 2022
- David Kindy. “How to Tell the Thanksgiving Story on Its 400th Anniversary”. Smithsonian Magazine. November 23, 2021; visited November 2022
- Andrew Lawler. “The Thanksgiving before the 'first' Thanksgiving”. National Geographic. November 19, 2018; visited November 2022
- “The First Thanksgiving”. National Park Services. April 9, 2018; visited November 2022
- George Washington. “Proclamation—Day of National Thanksgiving”. The American Presidency Project. October 3, 1789; visited November 2022
- James Madison. “Proclamation 20—Recommending a Day of Public Thanksgiving for Peace”. The American Presidency Project. March 4, 1815; visited November 2022
- “Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade is watched by millions but how and when did the parade first start?”. USA Today. November 24, 2021; visited November 2022
- “American Football on Thanksgiving”. Wikipedia; visited November 2022
- A lot of the stuff in the grocery store is not really food, but for all intents and purposes it fits the bill for the point I’m making in this post. We’ll explore the topic of fake food at a later date.
- “Harvest Festival”. New World Encyclopedia; November 2022
- Les Saidel. “The Circle of a Year”. The Jerusalem Post. September 26, 2019. visited November 2022
- Michael Morrison. “Old Testament Laws: Harvest Seasons of Ancient Israel”. Grace Communion International; visited November 2022
- I’m the only person in my family that observes the dietary restrictions, though I do have a few family members who are also vegetarian