Thanksgiving: a few reflections after the fact

As usual, around holiday events I get questions concerning its celebration. So, I was not surprised when a few inquiries arose around our last Thanksgiving Day. The first question asked was “Is Thanksgiving Day a religious holiday?” The second question was “Do other countries celebrate Thanksgiving Day?” The third was “What does Black Friday mean?”

Here in the United States of America, Thanksgiving Day is always on the fourth Thursday in November, and the day after — Black Friday — begins the Christmas shopping season. Black Friday is the busiest shopping day of the year, but not an official holiday. There are several theories of why this busy shopping day is called Black Friday, but to me the oldest is probably the most reasonable. Black Friday had always symbolized the moment when retailers, traditionally operating “in the red” (indicating losses), finally moved “into the black” (signifying profits) thanks to all of the sales happening after Thanksgiving. For most retailers, the Christmas holiday season is when most of the year’s sales are made.1

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However, it is Thanksgiving Day that this study is about, so let’s look at a few statistics. I know this holiday has been celebrated for several hundred years in my country. And growing up in the U.S., the schools always taught that Pilgrims and American Indians came together in the 1600s to give thanks to God for prospering with a good first harvest after a brutal winter along our northeastern Atlantic coast.

Basically, ultra-religious Pilgrims with black hats, and native American Indians with feather headbands, joined ranks and had a feast, mainly with corn and turkey. This happened in 1621, a year after arriving at Plymouth Colony (now Plymouth, Massachusetts, USA) aboard the Mayflower sailing ship from England.

In my youth, to celebrate this historic gathering, primary school children would draw Pilgrim, Indian, and turkey pictures with crayons in class. And the school would present a stage play or pageant depicting the events of that first Thanksgiving Day celebration. But anyone who studies American history can easily discover that behind this superficial vision hides a much more complex truth.2

First of all, these folk weren’t called Pilgrims at that time, but were English Protestants known as Puritan Separatists, who wanted to purify the Anglican Church of its Roman Catholic influences. But the motivation for coming to America was not just because of mistreatment and religious persecution, they also wanted opportunities to build their own community and spread the Gospel as they interpreted it without restriction.3

And there is no solid evidence that turkey was even on the menu when the English separatists sat down with the indigenous people. They probably dined on venison, fish, and shellfish, as well as corn and other vegetables. If there was some type of roasted bird served, it was most likely waterfowl like ducks or geese.4

There was no celebration the next year in 1622, but one is recorded in 1623 after suffering a crop-destroying drought and the settlers were only saved by the arrival of a supply ship from England. After this, for 150 years, an autumn harvest celebration was held only sporadically.5 There were, however, several miscellaneous Thanksgiving feasts held in various other settlements during those times.6

There was no United States of America when all this happened; our country was not established until 1776. So to imply Thanksgiving Day originated in the USA is incorrect. Even so, evidence indicates that Canadians actually celebrated their version of Thanksgiving before the Pilgrims ever arrived at Plymouth Colony. Many years’ prior — in 1578 — an English explorer organized such a celebration in Newfoundland, where he and his crew gave thanks for a successful voyage to North America. And the food for celebration was almost exactly what is described above.7

It was not until I did some research did I find there is a slew of other nations that designate a day to giving thanks too. It seems there are 17 countries that have some form of equivalent festival; some commemorate colonial migrations to the Americas and others are related to the harvest season.8

It is obvious that Thanksgiving Day is proclaimed by man, not God. But still, mostly Christian countries are the ones giving thanks to God for his blessings. Could there be some sort of religious link to this feast?


A National Thanksgiving Proclamation

While our modern thanksgiving celebration is not strictly a biblical observance, it does have a striking resemblance to the Hebrew Feast of Tabernacles. This Jewish festival — also called Sukkot9 — is celebrated around the autumn harvest. And even though the pilgrims did not consciously observe that biblical event, “it is interesting to study the parallels between these two celebrations that share the common spirit of thanksgiving to God.”10

And the first official United States government proclamation for a Thanksgiving Day indicates it was in the Christian spirit of giving thanks to Almighty God for his blessings. On Thursday, the 26th of November in 1789, our first president of the United States, George Washington, powdered his hair, put on his favorite black velvet suit and went to St. Paul’s Chapel in New York. He carried with him a proclamation to be publically read.11

Knowing that the new United States was born out of conquest, and violence, President Washington humbly offered “prayers and supplications to the great Lord and Ruler of Nations” and beseeched him “to pardon our national and other transgressions.”12 (His full proclamation can be read online; see References & Notes for a link.)13

Some people say Washington’s proclamation couldn’t have been written by him, because he wasn’t a Christian. While that may technically be correct, I still believe he wrote it and was sincere in his wording. As a tremendously self-aware man, he knew that he was a deeply flawed person; he knew he was not a saint and this made him a humble man who was thankful for what God supplied.14 There are many religions that believe in God, but are not Christian; Judaism and Islam are just two prime examples.

Although born in British America, our first president’s ancestry points back to England, where Deist philosophical thought was fairly prevalent among learned citizens (example: English philosopher Matthew Tindale). In North America, Washington grew up as a Deist. He was in good company, for that group included such men as Thomas Paine and Benjamin Franklin. There were famous women as well, such as Dolley Madison and Abigail Adams. Deism, while unorthodox, accepts natural religion — the belief in a supreme being and the need for his worship — without revelation or the teaching of any church.15

Deists seemed to place great emphasis on rationality in religious experience and agreed in denouncing all religious intolerance. The more elaborate and exclusive the religious establishment, the more it came under their attack. At the time, “a substantial portion of Deist literature was devoted to the description of the noxious practices of all religions . . . ” And they felt there were too many similarities between pagan and Roman Catholic rites being emphasized. Washington believed in Almighty God, but not in the way the prominent Christian religions taught about him.16 In many respects, I too can relate to his thinking.

Washington’s public Thanksgiving Day event may have been the first national celebration for the public, but it was not mandated to be an annual tradition. And other presidents failed to maintain this event,17 but when Abraham Lincoln issued his 1863 Thanksgiving Proclamation, it set the example for an annual Thursday in November. This celebration is now a tradition celebrated every fall in our modern era.

Although Thanksgiving Day is one of the most popular holidays, it is becoming more secular every year. More emphasis is placed upon the food and approaching Christmas shopping than thanking God for the many blessings he has provided. I think it is rather ironic that some people complain about George Washington not being a Christian but still praising God, while the current president — a Roman Catholic — announced his 2023 Thanksgiving Proclamation and completely omitted any reference to Almighty God or Divine Providence.18


Not Everyone Likes Thanksgiving Day

Some people believe the United States of America should not celebrate Thanksgiving Day. One author says Native Americans are anti-Thanksgiving because of what they consider cruel origins of the holiday, which they say celebrates genocide and discrimination disguised and repackaged as family-friendly.19

Another suggests Thanksgiving’s roots are intertwined with colonial aggression, violence, land theft, and decimation of Indigenous populations. It causes tremendous distress to those who still feel the trauma in their communities.20 And an article in Vogue Magazine implies the holiday “actually serves as a harmful reminder of how their land was stolen . . . how their people were killed, and how their culture was almost entirely stripped from them.”21

From their points-of-view, the first Thanksgiving must have been a bloody massacre, rather than a peaceful feast. Such groups within the American Indian communities are probably small, as most hate groups are: hate the police, hate the conservatives, hate the Jews, hate the Christians, hate the blacks, hate the whites, etc. There isn’t any logic to their argument, only unbridled cynicism.

But there are a few religious groups that also feel uncomfortable with this holiday. For instance, the Congregations of God says “the origins of Thanksgiving are a combination of superstition, myths, and false Christianity, similar to Christmas, Easter, Halloween.”22 I figure that if someone doesn’t like a holiday, then just don’t celebrate it. There is no just reason to lobby for banning it from everyone.



Like most Christians, I like Thanksgiving Day. The Bible doesn’t tell us we must partake of this man-made holiday, but it does provide precedent with the last feast our Lord commanded Israel to observe, the Feast of Tabernacles. This festivity celebrates the gathering of the harvest and commemorates the miraculous protection God provided Israel during their exodus.23

On Thanksgiving, as we prepare to gather around dinner with our family members, it is a wonderful time to reflect on good times, good people, and good things that you can be thankful for in addition to God’s undeserved blessings throughout the year. One author wrote, “Every single person in the world has something or someone that they are thankful for. The Thanksgiving holiday is a great time to make a gratitude list and reflect on the good things in your life.”24

The song selected for this discourse, ‘The Thanksgiving Song’, was written and recorded by American singer and songwriter Ben Rector. In reply to asking for his motivation to write this song, he said, “I realized I hadn’t ever heard a Thanksgiving song. I feel like everyone has an emotional connection and a lot of memories around Thanksgiving, just like they do [at] Christmas, so I did my best to write a song that honored that.” You will be surprised at the clever way the song verses are included within the video. Selected lyrics are below and a link to the music video is listed in References & Notes.24

So fill your plate and fill your drink
And fill this house with family
The kind of love a thousand miles can’t wash away
Cause the older that I get I see that life is short and bittersweet
Thank God that it’s Thanksgiving Day

Copyright © 2023, Dr. Ray Hermann

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References & Notes

  1. “Black Friday (shopping)”, (Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 27 November 2023),
  2. Bricker, Sophia, “Is Thanksgiving Truly a Christian Holiday?” (Christianity, 10 November 2021),
  3. Zavada, Jack, “How the Pilgrims’ Religion Inspired Thanksgiving”, (Learn Religions, 26 May 2021,
  4. Pruitt, Sarah, “Why We Eat Turkey on Thanksgiving”, (History Channel, 20 November 2023),
  5. “Thanksgiving in North America: From Local Harvests to National Holiday”, (Smithsonian Institution, retrieved 24 November 2023),
  6. “National Thanksgiving Proclamation”, (Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 28 November 2022),
  7. Deron, Bernadette, “This Is How 15 Other Countries Around The World Celebrate Thanksgiving”, (ATI, All That’s Interesting, 7 November 2021),
  8. Ibid.
  9. Sukkot: a Torah-commanded Jewish holiday celebrated for seven days in September-October; it recalls the days when the Israelites lived in huts (sukkot) during their years of wandering in the wilderness after leaving Egypt.
    “Sukkot”, (Encyclopedia Britannica, 20 July 1998),
  10. Seiglie, Mario, “Is Thanksgiving Rooted in a Biblical Festival?” (The Good News Magazine, November-December 2010 issue), p. 23.
  11. Valsania, Murizio, “How George Washington used his first Thanksgiving as president to unite a new country”, (The Conversation, 23 November 2020),
  12. Ibid.
  13. “George Washington’s Thanksgiving Proclamation”, (Smithsonian Institution, retrieved 24 November 2023),
  14. Valsania, Murizio, “How George Washington used his first Thanksgiving as president to unite a new country”, (see above).
  15. Pailin, David A., et al., “Deism”, (Encyclopedia Britannica, 31 May 2002),
  16. Ibid.
  17. “Thanksgiving”, (Mount Vernon Ladies Association, retrieved 24 November 2023),
  18. Williams, Thomas D., “Joe Biden Snubs ‘Almighty God’ in Thanksgiving Proclamation”, (Breitbart News, 25 November 2023),
  19. Hirsh, Sophie, “Thanksgiving Glorifies the Abhorrent Colonization of Indigenous Peoples”, (Green Matters, 21 November 2023),
  20. Sherman, Sean, and Iron Eyes, Chase, “Should America Keep Celebrating Thanksgiving?” (The Nation, 20 November 2023),
  21. Allaire, Christian, “Why I’m Not Celebrating Thanksgiving This Year”, (Vogue Magazine, 25 November 2020),
  22. “Why we should not celebrate Thanksgiving”, (Congregations of God, retrieved 27 November 2023),
  23. Posner, Menachem, “What is Sukkot?” (Chabad-Lubavitch Media, retrieved 29 November 2023),
  24. Graves, Felicia, “120 Things to be Thankful for on Thanksgiving”, (Felicia Graves, 1 November 2021),
  25. “The Thanksgiving Song”, Artist & Songwriter: Ben Rector; Album: A Ben Rector Christmas; Label: ‘OK Kid’, (produced by Shuttershot Productions, released in November 2020, no license or copyright listed). Used under ‘fair use copyright’ for teaching under Section 107 of the United States Copyright Act of 1976 — MUSIC VIDEO:
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