THANKSGIVING DAY: is it a religious holiday?

“Thanksgiving has its historical roots in religious and cultural traditions, and has long been celebrated in a secular manner as well.”*

thanksgiving day

There is no question that the c elebration of Thanksgiving Day has become a secular holiday, even a National Holiday, in America.   The Macy’s Parade, the football games, the Westminster Dog Show, food, drink, family and friends.   There is no denying the fact it is seen as a celebration of all sorts and conditions of people, some from religious traditions, and others with no religious affiliations.  It is a day on which people of all stripes can comfortably gather to celebrate a beautiful day.

But, as the quote from Wikipedia above points out, the day has its origin in religious and cultural traditions.  In fact, once we have put aside all the myths and exaggerations of the first Thanksgiving Day, it is clear that it was a day on which the new settlers in this country gathered together to give thanks for having been spared the hardships  that could have destroyed them.  And, it was a way of giving thanks for the harvest which was bountiful in the rich soils and unspoiled (at that time) land they had come to know as their homes.  The reality of the sharing with American Indians is clear, although, obviously, there have been numerous fictional characteristics given to the nature of that sharing.

The Pilgrim community is primarily identified as a religious community of people who had escaped from England and The Netherlands to avoid religious persecution by the State religions of those nations.    Not without their own faults of exclusivism, the Pilgrims were thankful to be able to worship and live their lives according to the standards they believed to be orthodox Christianity.

Elemental to that religous tradition was  the concept which is demonstrated in the beloved hymn of Christianity, “All Things Bright and Beautiful.”   The chorus repeats these words:

“All things bright and beautiful, All creatures great and small,

All things wise and wonderful, The Lord God made them all.”

The prevailing thought was that God had created the Universe, and that everything we have is from God.   That included the fruits of the land, of course.   Therefore the purpose of gathering on that first Thanksgiving Day was to give thanks to God from whom the food of the feast had come.    It’s not clear how that translated into the thinking of the Indians who were the invited guests, but if one pays close attention to the spirituality of Native American people, you might even come to the conclusion that they had a leg up on the Pilgrims in the belief that “the Great Spirit” was the provider of all things good.

There was no limitation on the breadth of the creation which the Pilgrims and other Christians held to be primary to their beliefs.   In the Prayer Book of the Anglicans, from whom the Pilgrims had fled, publishes the prayer to be used on Thanksgiving Day:

O Most merciful Father, who hast blesssed the labours of the husbandman in the returns of the fruits of the earth, We give thee humble and hearty thanks for this thy bounty; beseeching thee to continue thy loving-kindness to us, that our land may still yield her increase, to thy glory and our comfort; through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.”**

This is not to say that there is an exclusivity on the celebration of Thanksgiving Day attributable to Christians.   To the contrary, their are many traditions who celebrate the day as a spiritual holiday.   And, it is clear, there are many for whom the religious connotations have been blurred  and the day is a secular day of thanksgiving without religious language or tradition.

My question for the observance of the day would be, if we are gathered to give thanks for the food and fellowship and family (included extended family), to whom are we giving thanks?   That need not be a limiting question.  But it is one worth pondering.

Happy Thanksgiving.



Illustration Credit:  Norman Rockwell


** Book of Common Prayer, the Episcopal Church in the United States, 1963.

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