November 24, 2019
Every year, I spend Thanksgiving with my extended family. It’s often contentious, but I love seeing my relatives.
In the United States, Thanksgiving will be celebrated on November 28, 2019. For many years, this national holiday has been observed on the fourth Thursday in November, but why is that? There is an interesting history there, but the reason why we celebrate this holiday isn’t as clear as it seems.
What Does the Word Thanksgiving Mean?
Primarily, thanksgiving can refer to the act of giving thanks to God for His favor and kindness. Thanksgiving can also refer to any day or celebration during which participants give thanks to God in this manner.
Of course, Thanksgiving (with a capital T) points toward the American holiday and related and similar celebrations around the world. While early celebrations of Thanksgiving (and some current celebrations) have been partly driven by the change in seasons and a successful harvest, Thanksgiving has become largely commercial in the United States. Yes, families tend to gather together during this holiday, but many companies and stores have capitalized on its commercial value.
What Is the Origin of the Word Thanksgiving?
According to Doug Harper at the Online Etymology Dictionary, the word “thanksgiving” in the sense of giving thanks can be traced to the 1530s and the use of the word in the sense of a public celebration for giving thanks to a deity for divine favors arose in the 1630s. Although Harper may be off about the first thanksgiving dating back to 1621, he offers that the first use of the term “Thanksgiving Day” can be traced back to the 1670s.
The term thanksgiving may have had a religious origin. In numerous Bible verses, namely those in Nehemiah and Psalms, the translations for Greek and Hebrew text contained the word “thanksgiving.” Here is one example from Nehemiah 12:7:
And at the dedication of the wall of Jerusalem they sought the Levites out of all their places, to bring them to Jerusalem, to keep the dedication with gladness, both with thanksgivings, and with singing, with cymbals, psalteries, and with harps.
Here is another example from Psalms 100:
1(A Psalm of praise.) Make joyful noise unto the LORD, all ye lands.
2Serve the LORD with gladness: come before his presence with singing.
3Know ye that the LORD he is God: it is he that hath made us, and not we ourselves; we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture.
4Enter into his gates with thanksgiving, and into his courts with praise: be thankful unto him, and bless his name.
5For the LORD is good; his mercy is everlasting; and his truth endureth to all generations.
As Henry M. Morris III writes, the use of the words thanks and praise are intertwined with confession and atonement. However, our modern-day use of “thanksgiving,” even in a religious sense, have moved away from this.
Why Do Americans Celebrate Thanksgiving?
Many Americans are led to believe that we celebrate Thanksgiving largely because of the events in Plymouth, Massachusetts in November 1621. That is when at least 90 Wampanoag joined the settlers for a feast that lasted for three days. However, the participants didn’t refer to their feast as “thanksgiving” and according to some historians, there were thanksgiving feasts on the continent long before the feast involving the Pilgrims and Wampanoag.
There are claims that at least three events occurred on land that would eventually become the United States could be classified as thanksgiving celebrations.
- One claim comes from the Texas Society of the Daughters of the American Colonists, which maintains that Father Juan de Padilla held a thanksgiving service outside what is Canyon, Texas in 1541 for an army of 1,500 that accompanied Spanish conquistador Francisco Vasquez de Coronado.
- Some historians argue that the first Thanksgiving occurred in St. Augustine, Florida in early September 1565. That is when Don Pedro Menendez de Aviles arrived in Florida, claimed the land for God and his country, and he held a feast that included the indigenous Timucua tribe.
- Some historians argue that a feast held by French Huguenots in 1564 to celebrate the establishment of Fort Caroline in what is now Jacksonville was the first Thanksgiving.
- As Mike Sutton points out, a book published 1622 documents a 1616 “Thanksgiving” sermon held in Virginia.
What I Think
All that said, it still makes sense to some degree that many of our Thanksgiving traditions are rooted in the November 1621 feast.
- Some colonists went out “fowling,” but it is not clear rather they were looking for turkeys or geese and ducks, the latter two being easier to catch.
- The Wampanoag supplied venison, and the feast may have included fish, eels, shellfish, stews, vegetables and beer.
- During the three-day social event, men fire guns, ran races, and drank liquor.
Many Americans still do many of these things, and most look forward to eating foods that they otherwise would not eat during much of the year, plus some they do. Today, Thanksgiving feasts often include fowl (turkey and/or chicken), other meats, vegetables, and other special dishes that people want to eat. Many families and friends might also engage in games (namely football) and some may have a beer or two.
When Did Thanksgiving Become a National Holiday?
The New England colonists brought the “Thanksgiving” tradition with them, since thanksgiving days in Great Britain were regularly held to mark military victories or the end of droughts. During those days, people would hold days of prayer to thank God for numerous blessings.
Ultimately, the tradition of Thanksgiving as a national observance was codified by the United States government for much the same reason the English and the Scottish had days of thanksgiving. Several of our forefathers called for celebrations of thanksgiving to give thanks to God for the things that worked in their favor, particularly near the end of the Revolutionary War.
The Continental Congress celebrated the ratification of the constitution by proclaiming a national day of Thanksgiving. As president, George Washington proclaimed that the first nationally recognized Thanksgiving would be held on November 26, 1789. However, after 1798, the new U.S. Congress left the states to declare their own Thanksgiving celebrations.
By the time of Lincoln, Thanksgiving was left largely to the states, but he was convinced by Sarah Josepha Hale, the editor of Godey’s Lady’s Book, to make Thanksgiving Day a nation holiday to promote unity (Silverman). Hale, for her part, had been campaigning for that change for 40 years (Various).
On October 3, 1863, while the Civil War was raging, Lincoln officially called for a national Thanksgiving Day to be held on Thursday, November 26. Each subsequent president until Franklin Delano Roosevelt called for Thanksgiving to be held on the last Thursday in November.
FDR wanted to extend the Christmas shopping season in 1939, so he called for Thanksgiving to be held on the third week in November. He was rebuffed by various states and Congress eventually passed a joint resolution in 1941, which Roosevelt signed, to designate the fourth Thursday in November as Thanksgiving Day from there forward.
Who Else Celebrates Thanksgiving?
Of course, Canadians celebrate Thanksgiving, but theirs falls on the second Monday in October. There are also celebrations in Grenada, Liberia, and Saint Lucia.
Harper, Douglas. “thanksgiving | Origin and meaning of thanksgiving by Online Etymology Dictionary.” Online Etymology Dictionary, https://www.etymonline.com/word/thanksgiving. Retrieved 24 November 2019.
History.com Editors. “Thanksgiving 2019 – Tradition, Origins & Meaning.” History.com. A&E Television Networks, 27 October 2009, Updated 21 November 2019, https://www.history.com/topics/thanksgiving/history-of-thanksgiving. Accessed 24 November 2019.
Klein, Christopher. “Did Florida Host the First Thanksgiving?” History.com. A&E Networks, https://www.history.com/news/did-florida-host-the-first-thanksgiving. 24 November 2019.
Kranz, Jeffrey. “What ‘thanksgiving’ means in the Bible.” OverviewBible, 18 November 2016, https://overviewbible.com/thanksgiving-definition-bible/. Retrieved 24 November 2019.
Morris, Henry M. III, D.MIN. “Giving Thanks: Understanding the Biblical Emphasis of Thanksgiving.” Institute for Creation Research (ICR), 31 October 2012, https://www.icr.org/article/giving-thanks-understanding-biblical/. Retrieved 24 November 2019.
Silverman, David J. “Thanksgiving Day.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica, inc., 17 May 2019, https://www.britannica.com/topic/Thanksgiving-Day. 24 November 2019.
Sutton, Mike. “Thanksgiving: the English Origins of the Word and American Holiday.” The Daily Journalist. Think Research Expose, 8 November 2015, http://thedailyjournalist.com/the-historian/thanksgiving-the-english-origins-of-the-word-and-american-holiday/. Retrieved 24 November 2019.
“Thanksgiving | Define Thanksgiving at Dictionary.com.” Dictionary.com, https://www.dictionary.com/browse/thanksgiving. Retrieved 22 Nov 2018.
“Thanksgiving | Definition of Thanksgiving by Merriam-Webster.” Merriam-Webster, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/thanksgiving. Retrieved 24 November 2019.
Various Authors. “Thanksgiving.” Wikipedia, Updated 15 November 2019, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thanksgiving. Retrieved 24 November 2019.