Is Thanksgiving a Religious Holiday?

shutterstock_86257546 (1)Although the secularism of our present culture may have turned the focus more to feasting football, and family gathering, we must not forget the history and the religious significance of this American holiday. Actually, the first Thanksgiving Day observance originated in Virginia. On Dec. 4, 1619, thirty-eight English settlers arrived at Berkely Plantation on the James River near present Charles City, Virginia. The settlement’s charter required that the day of arrival be commemorated as a day of thanksgiving to Almighty God.

Most Americans, however, immediately associate our Thanksgiving celebration with the Pilgrims and their journey across the Atlantic on the Mayflower in search of a new land and religious freedom. After their perilous journey and with little food and supplies left, they arrived on Nov. 21, 1620, at Plymouth, Mass. During their first year, the Pilgrims endured many hardships and nearly half of the original 100 settlers died. Fortunately, the native Indians befriended the Pilgrims. Squanto, who had learned English from traders, not only showed the Pilgrims how to grow and grind corn, and how to hunt and fish in the new land, he assisted in negotiating a treaty with Chief Massasoit of the Wampanoag Indians. Governor William Bradford remarked that Squanto was “…a special instrument sent of God for their good beyond their expectations.” Near the time of the first anniversary of their arrival, Governor Bradford declared a day of prayer and thanksgiving to God. About 60 pilgrims were joined by 90 Indians for this celebration. The tradition continued and spread throughout the New England colonies, although no official date of celebration was set until later.

However, we must not forget that the Pilgrims were well steeped in the Bible. Governor Bradford’s idea for a celebration of thanksgiving was inspired by the Hebrew Feast of Tabernacles, one of Israel’s three major feasts, also known as the Feast of Ingathering or Booths. This feast was celebrated on the 15th day of month of Tishri (mid-October, five days after the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur) at the end of the harvest. The feast lasted one week, during which time the people refrained from work and recited the “saving deeds” of God from the Torah. They remembered their desert journey from Egypt where they had been slaves and their safe deliverance to the promised land. The people lived in booths (shelters of palm branches) as a symbol of the tents used on their exodus journey. They brought offerings of harvest fruits and new wine to the temple sanctuary to be offered each day in thanksgiving to God, remembering the Lord’s care and protection during the exodus, and His pledge of future protection and good harvests. Lamps and torches illuminated the temple area to remind them of the pillar of fire which accompanied the Israelites as they crossed to the promised land.

Finally, on the seventh and last day, the high priest poured a vessel of water brought from the pool of Siloam over the altar and recited the passage from Isaiah (12:3-5), “With joy you will draw water at the fountain of salvation, and say on that day: ‘Give thanks to the Lord, acclaim His name; among the nations make known His deeds, proclaim how exalted is His name. Sing praise to the Lord for His glorious achievement; let this be known throughout all the earth’”; this action too was reminiscent of how Moses struck the rock in the desert and God provided water for His people on their journey.

For the pilgrims, they must have seen the connection between their own exodus with that of the Jewish people: the flight from the land of persecution; the perilous journey through a wilderness; the divine protection of God who provided food, water, safety and the settlement in the promised land.

As Catholics, we too must not forget how our own religion was outlawed and persecuted in England at this time. On Nov. 22, 1633, a group of 300 colonists (one-third of whom were Catholic) set sail from Yarmouth harbor to establish the new colony of Maryland, where religious freedom for all people would be allowed. When they arrived at St. Clement’s Island on March 25, 1634, Father Andrew White, S.J. celebrated a Mass of Thanksgiving, the first Mass in the English colonies. (Remember the word Eucharist means “thanksgiving.”) They also were befriended by the native Indians of the Piscataway and Yoacomaco tribes. Interestingly, these tribes believed in one true God and offered a thanksgiving ritual of first fruits at their harvest time. The Maryland colonists would continue to offer thanksgiving festivals.

After the Revolutionary War, at the request of Congress, President George Washington declared that Thursday, Nov. 26, 1789, would be for the people of the United States a day of thanksgiving: “As a day of public thanksgiving and prayer to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many and single favors of Almighty God.” The declaration exhorted the people to “beseech Him to pardon our national and other transgressions, to promote the knowledge and practice of true religion and virtue, and to grant unto all mankind such a degree of temporal prosperity as He alone knows to be best.”

Gradually, the celebration of Thanksgiving became a more national and permanent event. In 1789, the Protestant Episcopal Church declared the first Thursday of November as an annual day of thanksgiving to Almighty God. Since 1817, New York State has officially celebrated Thanksgiving Day. By 1859, the custom of Thanksgiving Day had spread to 28 states and two territories. (Virginia was the first Southern state to institute the holiday.) In 1863, President Lincoln designated the last Thursday of November nationally “as a day of thanksgiving and praise to our beneficent Father.” Presidents Johnson in 1867 and Grant in 1870 continued the practice. The fourth Thursday of November would continue as the national day of Thanksgiving until 1939, when President Franklin Roosevelt moved it one week earlier to help businesses by lengthening the Christmas shopping period. Finally in 1941, Congress legislated that Thanksgiving would be observed on the fourth Thursday of November and would be a federal holiday.

As we celebrate this great American custom this year, we must not forget God. We should pause this Thanksgiving Day and take time to pray, reflect on our lives and give thanks. Each Catholic should make a real effort to attend Mass and come to the Banquet of our Lord to lift up our hearts in Thanksgiving and to receive Him in the holy Eucharist. Yes, we give thanks for the gifts of faith, Church and sacraments. We give thanks for the loved ones who are entrusted to our care and those who care for us. We give thanks for our country that has provided such great opportunities, security and peace. In all, we give thanks and rejoice in the Lord who has blessed each of us with so much and in so many ways.

Editor’s note: This article originally appeared in the Arlington Catholic Herald and is reprinted here with kind permission. It was originally published on CE on Nov. 23, 2001. 

Fr. William Saunders

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Fr. Saunders is pastor of Our Lady of Hope Parish in Potomac Falls and a professor of catechetics and theology at Notre Dame Graduate School in Alexandria. If you enjoy reading Fr. Saunders's work, his new book entitled Straight Answers (400 pages) is available at the Pauline Book and Media Center of Arlington, Virginia (703/549-3806).

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  • vito

    Thanksgiving Day, a function which originated in New England two or three centuries ago when those people recognized that they really had something to be thankful for — annually, not oftener — if they had succeeded in exterminating their neighbors, the Indians, during the previous twelve months instead of getting exterminated by their neighbors the Indians. Thanksgiving Day became a habit, for the reason that in the course of time, as the years drifted on, it was perceived that the exterminating had ceased to be mutual and was all on the white man’s side, consequently on the Lord’s side, consequently it was proper to thank the Lord for it.

    –Mark Twain

  • Julie

    So what’s your point? We should acknowledge Mark Twain as our expert on American History (as he sat in his nice home with no Indians attacking him)? That all the Indians were friendly and peaceful and never fought the settlers or each other? That people have not been taking over other people’s property by force since the beginning of time all over the world? Maybe Mark Twain and the people who were/are against the white man’s takeover of the Americas should move back to Europe. Just saying. We have so much for which to be thankful today even though the sinfulness of mankind causes so much hurt and suffering everyday. The violence will continue.

  • MrD&MrsR
  • hillbilly

    I was under the impression Squanto had been baptized by the Spaniards years earlier as a Catholic. Has anyone else heard this?

  • Millright

    Um, Fr. Saunders what about the first Thanksgiving at St. Augustine. On September 8, 1565, the Spanish and the native Timucua celebrated with a feast of thanksgiving.

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