Of all the American holidays rooted in a Christian tradition, Thanksgiving has been the least corrupted by commercialism. Yet, because of the way it has evolved over time, the origins and original meaning of Thanksgiving have been largely obscured or hopelessly distorted. Contrary to popular belief, the first Thanksgiving was not started by the Pilgrims in 1621 and did not grow out of the tradition of the harvest festival. Thanksgiving Day, historians are agreed, is rooted in the English Reformation.
In the early 16th century in England, there were 95 religious holidays in addition to the regular Sabbath worship days. The religious reforms instituted by Henry VIII in 1536 limited this number to 27 a year. Later, the Puritans took the reform of religious holidays a step further. They eliminated them – all of them! Looking askance at the Christological cycle from Advent to Easter and the proliferation of saints’ days throughout the year, the Puritans dismissed these celebrations as Catholic fabrications or remnants of a pagan past.
Moreover, the Puritans embraced a different concept of time. The Catholic liturgical tradition was cyclical, being anchored to the seasons of the year with special days set aside as holy. The Puritans believed that all time is holy. Convinced that God continues to be active in our physical universe not only through general providence but also special providences (prodigies and omens), the Puritans looked to events in society and nature as the means through which God continues to communicate with God’s people.
With this dynamic view of God, the Puritans held days of thanksgiving or days of fasting and humiliation as a ritual response to what God was telling them. When God seemed to be judging the people through war, famine, plague, political conflict or natural disaster, a fast day was proclaimed so that the people could contemplate their sins, repent and set things back on the course that God had intended. A fast day might also be undertaken to seek God’s guidance in a time of uncertainty. Conversely, days of thanksgiving were called to mark providential blessings – success in war, bountiful harvests and general prosperity.
The Puritans who came to New England in the 17th century brought this tradition of fasting and feasting with them. By the end of the century, when the second and third generations of New England Puritans had no firsthand memory of the liturgical cycle in England, thanksgiving and fast days settled into an annual pattern. There were still special holidays called in response to specific events, but thanksgivings were now generally held in the months of October, November and December, when the harvest had been gathered, food was plentiful and the long winter was soon to set in. Fasts were generally declared in the spring months of March, April and May, when food was scarce anyway and people were seeking God’s blessing and guidance at the beginning of the new agricultural year.
The tradition of an autumnal thanksgiving day spread from New England to other colonies in the 18th century, and during the 19th century many western states also adopted it. In the early years of the republic, presidents proclaimed 10 national days of thanksgiving or fasting, President James Madison calling the last one in 1815 to mark the end of the War of 1812. It was President Abraham Lincoln, in 1863, who inaugurated an annual Thanksgiving Day to be on the last Thursday of November. In 1941 Congress completed the task of nationalizing the holiday by establishing the fourth Thursday of November as the nation’s annual Thanksgiving Day.
In the late 19th century, Americans retroactively selected the Pilgrim’s feast of 1621 as “the first Thanksgiving.” Historians agree, however, that this was not a Puritan thanksgiving but a traditional English harvest festival. Pilgrim Village, the reconstruction of the historical Plymouth Colony for tourists, acknowledged this fact in 1973 when it ceased to celebrate Thanksgiving Day and, instead, organized a three-day “Harvest Festival” on the Columbus Day weekend in October.
Our modern Thanksgiving would be unrecognizable to the early Puritans. Being celebrated on a fixed annual date rather than one contingent on events, Thanksgiving no longer reflects the Puritans’ heightened sense of God’s involvement in human affairs. Moreover, for most Americans this ostensibly Christian holiday has gradually ceased to be a religious day at all. Instead, it is now dedicated to the merely secular and sentimental – family reunions, traditional food and football.
To reclaim Thanksgiving, modern Christians need not assume the Puritans’ iconoclastic spirit, eliminating culinary delights or other family-centered aspects of the holiday, but, as with Christmas, we may need to create a genuinely faithful alternative to the secular holiday that Thanksgiving has become, one that gives due honor to the God who, as the Puritans believed, is indeed present and active for good in our lives.
MICHAEL PARKER is the director of graduate studies at the Evangelical Theological Seminary in Cairo, Egypt, and the author of “John Winthrop: Founding the City upon a Hill” (Routledge, 2014).