Pilgrims with black hats and puffed sleeves having a turkey feast with Native Americans are the common images associated with Thanksgiving. Most Americans were taught about this event in school as children and can remember being involved in plays and pageants depicting the events of the “first Thanksgiving.”
While the holiday has long been perceived in this way, there are many reasons to question this picture of the event that the modern secular/civic religious Thanksgiving is based on.
Based on modern scholarship, many historians and scholars are convinced that the history of Thanksgiving is much more complex than commonly depicted. Not only has the idea of the holiday as an originally Christian one been questioned, but the colonialism associated with the “first Thanksgiving” has recently become much more apparent and unmasked.
To understand whether Thanksgiving is truly a Christian holiday, one must examine the event behind the modern celebration of Thanksgiving, the Pilgrim practice of holding thanksgivings, and how the celebration became a national holiday of America.
The ‘First’ Thanksgiving
Pilgrims, not the Puritans, were the ones who settled in North America after arriving on the Mayflower in 1620. As Christian separatists, they left England to worship freely because of the persecution from the Church of England. Their trip across the ocean was perilous and many of the Pilgrims lost their lives on the voyage.
When they finally made it to the New World, many more of the passengers became ill and died. While the Native Americans did help the Pilgrims learn to survive, their relations with the newcomers were more complicated than is commonly depicted.
The Wampanoag tribe did enter a peace treaty with the Pilgrims but did so mainly to protect their own tribe. Also, in contrast to popular stories, the Native Americans did not pass on their land to the Pilgrims.
In September or October of 1621, the governor of the new settlement, William Bradford, declared a feast in celebration of their successful harvest. Although half of the original Pilgrims had perished, the remaining settlers celebrated a feast.
Pilgrims and members of the Wampanoag joined in the celebration, although most historians agree that the food and events of the feast are mainly unknown. The feast was a celebration of the harvest, but the Pilgrims did not recognize it as a new holiday to celebrate annually.
Also, there is very little documentation of the event, which proves it was not a major event that the Pilgrims chose to “mark on their calendars” for the coming years.
While the Pilgrims did worship the Lord and would have given thanks to Him for their harvest, the event known as the “first” Thanksgiving was a “harvest feast and not, as far as we know, an official religious day of thanksgiving.”
Surely, the Pilgrims would have recognized God’s provision for the harvest and would not have specifically separated the sacred from the secular as people do today. However, there is no indication that the 1621 Thanksgiving celebration between the Native Americans and Pilgrims was a strictly Christian observance.
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Thanksgivings to the Lord
The Pilgrims had a long tradition, spanning back to their time in England, where they would observe times of suffering and times of plenty. During times of suffering, Pilgrim leaders would call for a fast and repentance of sins.
Likewise, in times of abundance and blessing, the people would collectively observe a time of thanksgiving, when they would offer praise to the Lord. An official day of thanksgiving was celebrated by the Pilgrims in 1623 because of rain after a long season of drought.
This celebration was seen as an official day of thanksgiving when the grateful Pilgrims praised the Lord for the rain after suffering the effects of drought. Such “holidays,” like the one in 1623, were sporadic and not held at the same time every year.
After the Puritans arrived in Plymouth in 1630, they quickly enveloped the Pilgrims and their settlement, and the Plymouth Colony soon became mainly Puritan. Like the Pilgrims, the Puritans would sporadically recognize days of thanksgiving.
However, in 1668, the Plymouth Colony decreed an observation of thanksgiving to the Lord, for the colony’s members to give thanks on the fourth Thursday in November. Evidently, this influenced the idea that Thanksgiving was a Christian holiday.
Not until the 1800s did specific traditions for Thanksgiving celebrations come about. In the 1800s, Thanksgiving celebrations were commonly held during Autumn. On these days, which were not usually on the last Thursday of November, people would go to church in the morning.
During the afternoon, they would say a prayer to give thanks and enjoy an abundant dinner. Through the influence of the Pilgrims and Puritans, celebrations of Thanksgiving would often include consideration of the poor, either by inviting them to the feast or the later practice of giving to charity.
Thus, in this sense, the earlier celebrations of Thanksgiving were impacted by the religious observances of the Pilgrims and Puritans. However, the later development of the holiday moved away from the Christian influences to instead support a nationalistic agenda.
An Official National Holiday
Recognizing a day of thanksgiving was not restricted to the Christian communities. On October 3, 1789, George Washington proclaimed the last Thursday of November to be a day of Thanksgiving to give thanks to the “Almighty.”
Although Washington was not a Christian, but a Deist, many people in the newly formed United States of America would have seen Washington’s proclamation as referring to the Lord. Thanksgiving, as proclaimed by George Washington, would be a day of prayer to give thanks and ask God to help the nation.
Later, President Abraham Lincoln issued a proclamation on October 3, 1863, declaring Thanksgiving Day, the last Thursday of November, as a national holiday. He was urged on by Sarah Hale, who persistently campaigned for the holiday.
Lincoln hoped the observance of Thanksgiving would encourage a reunion of the nation during the Civil War. As the President that officially inaugurated the holiday, Lincoln is credited with making Thanksgiving a national holiday.
Thanksgiving Day became enmeshed with the history of the “first” Thanksgiving in 1621, to provide a nationalistic narrative to the holiday. Especially in the 1800s and 1900s, children were taught about the events at Plymouth, but with a simplistic view of the happenings.
The overarching idea was that the Native American Indians passed the land over to the new settlers, but this was not the case. Sadly, children in schools in the past and present were not taught about the colonialism behind the holiday and the bloody wars that followed the “first” Thanksgiving.
The colonies spread and thrived, eventually turning into America, at the expense and oppression of the Native Americans.
As is noted in a theological journal article about Thanksgiving, “We selectively recount the story of the pilgrims, their courage and valor, while at the same time selectively ignoring the cost their growing abundance and expansion meant for native peoples who were already living here even as some of us reap the benefits.”
Americans need to keep this in mind on the day we give thanks for our land and country.
Christians and Thanksgiving
Thus, Thanksgiving Day in America is not truly a Christian holiday. There are Christian traditions associated with the day, but the official national holiday declared by Abraham Lincoln is not rooted in Christianity. Instead, Thanksgiving is a secular or civic religious day that is grounded in America’s history and used to support nationalistic ideals.
Christians can celebrate the day, since spending time with family and loved ones while giving thanks is important. However, believers should “give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus” (1 Thessalonians 5:18, NIV). Every day can be a day of “thanksgiving” to the Lord.
Even though Thanksgiving is not a Christian holiday, followers of Christ can choose to observe the day to the glory of God, thus making the day special even if other Christians choose to abstain from celebrating the holiday (Romans 14:6). Either way, the glory of the Lord is the focus for Christians on Thanksgiving (1 Corinthians 10:31).
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Sophia Bricker is a freelance writer who enjoys researching and writing articles on biblical and theological topics. In addition to contributing articles about biblical questions as a contract writer, she has also written for Unlocked devotional. She holds a BA in Ministry, a MA in Ministry, and is currently pursuing an MFA in Creative Writing to develop her writing craft. As someone who is passionate about the Bible and faith in Jesus, her mission is to help others learn about Christ and glorify Him in her writing. When she isn’t busy studying or writing, Sophia enjoys spending time with family, reading, drawing, and gardening.