Thanksgiving Day: Why Do We Do It

Every Halloween Christians argue about what they should do on Halloween (I dealt with that here). Every Christmas and Easter another group of Christians points out the pagan origins of those holidays and level a similar charge. But rarely has the same point been raised about Thanksgiving. “It’s a time to thank God for all He has done” are the usual words while any pagan relationship to the holiday is ignored. My main premise with this post is not to validate or deny the celebration of the day but rather to show how far spread certain practices and celebrations are across religions and how that’s not surprising in the least.

The US Thanksgiving (as you know) was only nailed down as the fourth Thursday of November by Franklin Roosevelt in 1939. In Canada, the 2nd Monday in October was set apart for “General Thanksgiving to Almighty God for the bountiful harvest” as late as 1957. Before that there was a spotty history of Thanksgivings in North America being celebrated sometimes in December, sometimes in October and so forth (was it 1578 by Martin Frobisher in Canada or was it 1541 by Francisco de Coronado—who knows). All agree that the celebration at Plymouth Rock consisted of 3 days of fun, festivities and some form of feasting.

But way before North America thought to argue holidays, there were autumn celebrations all over the world that centered around the harvest. In England there was Harvest Home demarcating the fall equinox as particularly holy and featuring the cailleac (corn dolly). Korea has Chu-Sok that begins August 15th and continues for three days. Ancient Rome had Cerelia on October 4th and China has the August Moon festival on the fifteenth day of the eighth lunar month.

In each of these festivals there is some form of giving of thanks for the harvest before the impending winter—which isn’t surprising. If there was one thing that all people have learned is that it is hard to survive winter without food. Some of these religions have therefore taken to thanking a goddess for the harvest bounty.

Now before anyone takes up a cause arguing against the pagans, let it be noted that the Jews celebrated mitzvah of sukkot (The Feast of Booths) as per {{Leviticus 23}} around the same time as the pagans. Both groups gave thanks and both groups enjoyed a fine meal. Now, that being so I don’t think it invalidates the Jewish practice but actually establishes it as true.

I’ll have to unpack that.

People, Paul points out, were capable of seeing God’s invisible attributes around them and yet willfully chose to suppress that and assign (and acknowledge) those attributes to things within the created system. In other words, people saw in creation something of God, refused to attribute it to a Real Living God and instead came up with some idea of a god in charge of that one aspect of their lives—food for winter. So the fact that so many religions give thanks during this time doesn’t invalidate the thankfulness aspect (we should be thankful!) but it does show that they’re not giving thanks to the right person.

The Pagans wave their sheaf of corn hoping for a good harvest the next year, but the Jews wave their sheaf because they were told to do it and enjoy it. They give thanks to God who is not some being holding sway to only part of the created system but the One overarching being above over and beyond all things and thus specifies a manner of thanksgiving—which may be similar to the pagans but brings it all into sharp focus.

For when the food is enjoyed it isn’t in the hopes of a new harvest for next year but because God said “enjoy it and be grateful!” The Jew would look back to the land where he worked for something that wasn’t his and now, in his own land he would work and realize he’s only there because God rescued him.

It’s therefore experientially obvious that an agricultural people should be grateful during the harvest season, especially if they’re noting how much food there is. It’s to be expected that so many religious systems have a thanksgiving around the same general time. But it’s also to be expected, if one takes Christianity as true, that God would clarify who is to be thanked and why.

But one could also argue that it’s possible that there is a spiritual aspect to the universality of thanksgiving during the same time. For instance, how much do we understand Spirit Beings? Do they have an idea of God’s plans? Can they follow the logic of created beings being thankful and thus preemptively give people thanksgiving practices before the actual method of thanksgiving is revealed?

So there can also be a supernatural reason, next to the experiential reason, why such practices are so wide spread. Now those facts don’t invalidate Christians giving thanks, it just gives us something to think about.

  • The mitzvah of bikurim (Feast of Firstfruits) Deuteronomy 26:1-12) (Jewish)
  • 15th Day of 8th Lunar Month —August Moon festival The Woman’s Festival (China)
  • October 4th —First Fruits or the Festival of Cerelia (Rome)
  • August 15th: begins the 14th at night and continues 3 days (Korea — Chu-Sok)
  • The Cornucopia (a goat’s horn filled with fruit and grain symbolizing Zeus’nurse: Amalthaea
  • Harvest Home (Ingathering, Inning, and Kern) celebrated at the end of the harvest season. The use of the corn dolly (cailleac fashioned by the last sheaf)
  • 1541 (May 23) “Spanish explorer, Francisco Vasquez de Coronado, and his men held a service of thanksgiving after finding food, water, and pasture for their animals in the Panhandle”
  • 1578 Martin Frobisher holds formal ceremony giving thanks for surviving long journey
  • 1619 (Dec 4) Virginia Colony
  • 1621 Plymouth Harvest Festival lasting almost a week with Native Americans (Wampanoag)
  • 1777 Thanksgiving celebrated together in America for the first time—prompted by Revolutionary War
  • 1863 Abraham Lincoln establishes Thanksgiving on the last Thursday in November
  • 1872 “First Canadian Thanksgiving celebrated after Confederation celebrate the recovery of the Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII) from a serious illness”—Wikipedia
  • 1879 (April 5) Canadian Parliament declares Nov 6 a Thanksgiving and National Holiday
  • 1939 Franklin Roosevelt moved it to the fourth Thursday in November
  • 1957 (Jan 31) “A Day of General Thanksgiving to Almighty God for the bountiful harvest with which Canada has been blessed … to be observed on the 2nd Monday in October.”
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