by John W. Ritenbaugh
Thanksgiving Day has been called the most American of all holidays. Even a cursory search into its history, though, reveals many antecedents that originated—or were at least celebrated—in other countries. Thus, it is hardly unique to America. We have inserted into it various traditions associated with our history, and it is these that give Thanksgiving Day much of its aura to us. Unfortunately, in many cases, the attitude in which Americans observe it has degenerated to such an extent that it is but a parody of real thanksgiving.
American tradition forces us to focus on the Pilgrims' celebration in 1621. However, they borrowed the custom from either their native England or Holland, where the Pilgrims lived for several years before sailing to America.
But long before that, the ancient Romans dedicated October 10 to the goddess Ceres. People dressed themselves in sheaves of grain and indulged in sports and merry-making. The ancient Greeks traditionally sacrificed a cow and sow in autumn as an offering of thanks for the harvest. In Canaan, people trod grapes in the pagan temple for the same reason. Of course, in ancient Israel the great Feast of Tabernacles consisted of eight days of worship services and feasting.
In the Middle Ages citizens decorated church buildings between September 19 and October 1. St. Martin's Day followed on November 11, on which they ate roasted goose. Our custom of eating turkey on Thanksgiving may have a loose tie to this tradition.
The Pilgrims of Plymouth Rock were far from being first on this continent to observe a day of thanksgiving. They were not even first in the United States! The distinction of being first in the western hemisphere goes to a small colony in Newfoundland under Sir John Frobisher, May 28, 1578. The first recorded in the U.S. was celebrated in late August 1607 in what is today Maine. Colonial Virginians kept several other thanksgiving observances between 1607-1620.
The Pilgrims held their first Thanksgiving on December 13, 1621, and another in 1623. What made the Pilgrims' occasion noteworthy is that it was the first in America that was both a religious service and a feast. The others were wholly religious services dedicated to God for deliverance and the preservation of their lives.
At the Pilgrims' 1621 observance, ninety Indians unexpectedly showed up, so the Pilgrims invited them to participate. The feast, primarily turkey and venison, was prepared by four adult women and six teenaged girls. The Indians performed some war dances, and the pilgrims responded with military drills and some sports of the day.
Is Thanksgiving Day Pagan?
It is obvious from this brief overview that some of the traditions associated with Thanksgiving Day have roots in pagan practices. The rites of ancient Canaan, Greece and Rome were patently idolatrous. But should we drop our celebration of Thanksgiving because it shares traditions similar to what pagan peoples have done?
An even more basic question is, "Are harvest festivals of themselves anti-God?" The answer must obviously be "No," because God Himself commands us to keep Pentecost and Tabernacles, both of which are harvest festivals. He must see a positive purpose in them to require two during each year.
Is it safe to assume that because pagans discover and practice something, God is naturally opposed to every aspect of it? Paul writes in a parenthetical thought:
For not the hearers of the law are just in the sight of God, but the doers of the law will be justified; for when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do the things contained in the law, these, although not having the law, are a law to themselves, who show the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness, and between themselves their thought accusing or else excusing them. (Romans 2:13-15)
Unconverted people can, completely apart from contact with the true God, discover much that harmonizes with God's purpose or godliness in general. The problem is that because they lack God's Holy Spirit, the truth they find is not as meaningful as it could be. Further, they cannot rightly discern its true godly use. Add to this Paul's thoughts in Romans 1:18-21:
For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, because what may be known of God is manifest in them, for God has shown it to them. For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead, so that they are without excuse, because, although they knew God, they did not glorify Him as God, nor were thankful, but became futile in their thoughts, and their foolish hearts were darkened.
Paul is describing the perversity of human nature. That a Creator God exists is evident. Every normally intelligent person, converted or unconverted, has enough capacity to be aware of God. The natural outgrowth of this knowledge should be to glorify Him through praise and thanksgiving. The perversity appears when mankind largely ignores or resists what should be a natural inclination.
However, not everyone suppresses this tendency. Those who follow the natural inclination to praise and thank the Creator and Provider usually give their thanks to something that is not really God, but an idol. Thus, while sincere, the inclination is wrongly applied, frequently resulting in a harvest festival, as history shows.
Wrong to Celebrate National Holidays?
It ought to be clear that to praise God as Creator and Provider is not wrong, nor is a harvest festival intrinsically evil. The sin is to neglect to give God what is His due or to give to an idol what rightfully belongs to the true God. Acts 17:22-31 gives an example of this. Paul clearly acknowledges that the Greeks had correctly discovered some things essential to knowing God, but they had wrongly applied them. Paul tried to correct that lack by preaching the gospel to them.
At this point, we need to consider whether it is sin for those who have made the covenant with God to celebrate a national holiday. Zechariah 8:19 gives us some immediate insight into this.
Thus says the LORD of hosts: "The fast of the fourth month, the fast of the fifth, the fast of the seventh, and the fast of the tenth, shall be joy and gladness and cheerful feasts for the house of Judah. Therefore love truth and peace."
Here are four fasts established by the Jews, none of which has anything to do with God's plan. The fast of the fourth month (9th of Tammuz) marked when the Babylonians entered Jerusalem; that of the fifth month (9th of Ab), the destruction of the temple; that of the seventh month (3rd of Tishri), the murder of Gedaliah, a governor of Judah; and that of the tenth month (10th of Tebeth), the beginning of the Babylonian siege of Jerusalem.
God nowhere says that they are evil, that He hates them or that to observe them is sin. In fact, the prophecy in which these fasts appear shows not only God's approval of keeping them, but also that He will turn them into feasts of joy rather than fasts of sorrow.
One might argue, "Yes, but these fasts are solemn and serious in their purpose, and God could hardly be displeased with that." Maybe so, but is God displeased when people have fun rejoicing over His blessings? Hardly! The prophecy clearly shows He wants us to rejoice.
Let's take this one step further: Should God's people proclaim and establish national holidays?
And Mordecai wrote these things and sent letters to all the Jews who were in all the provinces of King Ahasuerus, both near and far, to establish among them that they should celebrate yearly the fourteenth and fifteenth days of the month of Adar. . . . [T]he Jews established and imposed it upon themselves and their descendants and all who would join them, that without fail they should celebrate these two days every year, according to the written instructions and according to the prescribed time, that these days should be remembered and kept throughout every generation, every family, every province, and every city, that these days of Purim should not fail to be observed among the Jews, and that the memory of them should not perish among their descendants. (Esther 9:20-21, 27-28)
The context explains that they celebrated these days with feasting, rejoicing and sending of presents to one another and to the poor! They established this national holiday on their own authority without any condemnation from God.
John 10:22-23 shows Jesus walking in the Temple area in Jerusalem during the Feast of Dedication. Today, the Jews call this feast Hanukkah. It is the national celebration of the rededication of the Temple by the Jews at the end of the Maccabean revolt. Jesus gives no indication He was avoiding the day and its accompanying social and spiritual activities. If he had, He would have avoided the Temple. Commentators raise no questions about whether He was keeping the day; they conclude that His walking in the Temple was purposeful.
In addition, five of God's holy days have direct connections to significant events in Israel's history. Unleavened Bread has a tie to Abraham's circumcision, Israel's liberation from slavery in Egypt and the crossing of the Red Sea. Pentecost commemorates the giving of the law at Mt. Sinai. Trumpets appears linked with Joseph's release from prison, and Tabernacles recalls Israel's forty-year trek through the wilderness.
Every nation has events that are significant to its history, and they establish celebrations to mark them so they are not forgotten. Those things unify a people and give a sense of belonging by expressing the common heritage. Nothing in God's Word indicates that following this principle is sinful.
Zechariah 7:4-6 appears to contradict this:
Then the word of the LORD of hosts came to me, saying, "Say to all the people of the land, and to the priests: When you fasted and mourned in the fifth and seventh months during those seventy years, did you really fast for Me—for Me? When you eat and when you drink, do you not eat and drink for yourselves?
This actually confirms that God permits national observances. His complaint is not with the observance of the fasts per se, but with the attitude in which the Jews observed them. The Jews' attitude abused something permitted but not commanded. God expresses His disapproval of the ethical and spiritual attitudes that underlay their outward observance. He questions their sincerity and motivation during their fasts, which should have been times of prayer and repentance. They should have used the time to recall the sins that had led them into the slavery that made calling the fasts so necessary. They should have been searching for any remnant of those sins still residing in them and repenting of them. In Isaiah 58:5, God asks, "Is it a fast that I have chosen?" God is scolding the Jews in the same way.
The American Thanksgiving
A factor that sets Thanksgiving apart from Christmas, Easter, Halloween, Good Friday, etc., is that it is not part of any religion's plan of salvation, nor is it demonism. The Encyclopedia Britannica says the following regarding Thanksgiving's authority. "Harvest festivals, common in the Western churches since the Middle Ages, have a distinctive American tradition in Thanksgiving Day, on the fourth Thursday of November" (15th edition, 1979, vol. 4, p. 602).
What is so distinctive about America's Thanksgiving?
» Though it has obvious similarities with other people's thanksgiving celebrations, it is not particularly religious.
» It is not tied to any particular church denomination.
» It derives its authority to be celebrated from the state, not the church.
The 11th edition of The Encyclopedia Britannica states:
In the United States, the fourth Thursday in November [is] annually set apart for thanksgiving by proclamation of the president and of the governors of the various states. The day is observed with religious services in the churches, and, especially in New England, as an occasion for family reunion. . . . During the War of Independence the Continental Congress appointed one or more thanksgiving days each year, except in 1777, each time recommending to the executives of the various states the observance of these days in their states. President Washington appointed a day of thanksgiving . . . in 1789 and . . . another in 1795. President Madison, in response to resolutions of Congress, set apart a day of thanksgiving at the close of the War of 1812. . . . President Lincoln appointed the fourth Thursday of November 1864, and since that time each president has annually followed his example. (1911, vol. 26, p. 725)
America's Constitution forbids the government to establish any particular religion. Thanksgiving Day, therefore, is generic, though it was originally intended as a sincere expression of appreciation to God for the physical deliverance He has given.
Concerns About Paganism
Some people may be concerned that some aspects of its celebration seem to have sprung from older European models or even ancient pagan practices. Let's examine a few principles and consider some things we know are true.
Therefore concerning the eating of things offered to idols, we know that an idol is nothing in the world, and that there is no other God but one. For even if there are so-called gods, whether in heaven or on earth (as there are many gods and many lords), yet for us there is one God, the Father, of whom are all things, and we for Him; and one Lord Jesus Christ, through whom are all things, and through whom we live. However, there is not in everyone that knowledge; for some, with consciousness of the idol, until now eat it as a thing offered to an idol; and their conscience, being weak, is defiled. But food does not commend us to God; for neither if we eat are we the better, nor if we do not eat are we the worse. (I Corinthians 8:4-8)
How does this apply to Thanksgiving? It is a national holiday with weak religious overtones, but unlike Christmas and Easter, it is not part of any salvation formula. It does not honor or venerate any individual like Santa Claus or Nimrod. It does not even directly honor our Savior Jesus Christ. Its religious aspect is simply to honor God as a generality, not specifically. The specific focus of each person's observance is left entirely to the individual. Thus, for some it is a day of gluttonous feasting and sports; for another, a time for a family reunion; for another, entirely religious; and for others, combinations of the above.
If we limited our religious practice only to those things that had no similarities with paganism, we could practice precious little with a totally clear conscience. Satan, knowing God's purpose and plan, has counterfeited virtually every important aspect of proper religious practice. Any reader of The Two Babylons or The Golden Bough or Satan's Great Deception knows this. In many cases, Satan instituted his doctrine and practice long before God did, making it appear as if Christianity derived from ancient pagan customs.
Thus, with Thanksgiving Day, we are not even dealing with the principles these verses cover. What God forbids is observing pagan festivals and worshipping idols that are intended to be deliberate substitutes for true worship or that falsely define His nature. Doing this would parallel the sin of the Golden Calf incident (Exodus 32).
This section does answer the question of whether one can eat something that was also normally sacrificed as part of the pagans' harvest feast. If the idol is nothing, then surely the food is even less important. So the answer becomes obvious. The one proviso would be whether the conscience of another would be offended by what one does.
Giving thanks is something God expects—indeed requires—of His people. The key is whether the thanks is given to Him or demons. The one is truth and leads to greater truth and liberty. The other is idolatry and leads to greater enslavement and death.
"In Everything Give Thanks"
I Thessalonians 5:16-18 is within a series of exhortations to perform certain services to God and man that are the responsibility of all Christians. Paul writes, "Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, in everything give thanks; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you." The Revised Standard Version renders verse 18, "Give thanks in every circumstance for this is the will of God." Thanksgiving is as much a part of Christian life as prayer. Our joy, prayers and thanksgiving should not fluctuate with our circumstances or feelings.
God is not an egotistical monster who feeds off our adoring devotion. He is love. What He commands us to do or permits us to experience is for our good. Though there will undoubtedly be low points during difficult trials, Christianity ought to be an exhilarating experience. Whether it is or not frequently depends on our perspective, our point of view regarding God, and our circumstances. If we have a true perspective of God, then thanksgiving is due Him for His watchful care and the deliverance He has promised to give us.
Though I Thessalonians 5:16-18 does not apply directly to Thanksgiving Day, it certainly applies generally because the keeping of Thanksgiving should include at least thoughtful meditation and prayer to review one's material well-being over the previous year. Without this, it loses its value to the Christian in his relationship with God. It becomes nothing more than a self-indulgent—and very possibly gluttonous—feast.
A Chinese proverb says, "If one looks at the sun, all shadows are behind." In a literal sense, this is true and obvious. Metaphorically, it is not so obvious. The sun can represent the positive side of things, or it can be our goal. The shadows represent problems and trials, the negative side of circumstances. We are realistic enough to know that where we go, the shadows go. We know they are there, but because they are behind, we do not focus on them. However, if we turn our back on the sun and focus on the shadows, they have a way of overwhelming us, making us lose our incentive to succeed.
In another sense, the sun is the source of light. Light reveals the true shape and form of objects so that we can see them as they are and where they are. God uses light to symbolize truth, and His Word is truth (John 17:17). His truth will give us a clear and true perspective on life's events. Because faith in God comes from God's Word (Romans 10:17), we will tend to have a positive, realistic and hopeful outlook on life.
If we are consciously looking to God and relating our experiences to God, who is infinitely concerned about the outcome of our lives, then we will see much to thank Him for. Though we will still be realistically aware of difficulties to be faced, we will possess an optimistic outlook on life that will not permit us to become discouraged for long. God is love, and we are His children. "All things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose" (Romans 8:28). Thus, if rightly used, sickness and health, prosperity and adversity, will all work to our advantage. Right use begins with having the right point of view within the circumstance. God has given us the right point of view. Thus, we can be thankful.
How thankful we are is inextricably bound with how real God and His purpose are to us. If He is real to us, we will see concrete evidence of His work on behalf of His purpose in the world, in the church, in our lives and in others' lives. Giving thanks is a response to the recognition of what God is, what He has shown us of Himself, and what He has done for us and others. If we are not giving thanks, it is because we either do not recognize or refuse to acknowledge these things. So the appeals to give thanks are exhortations to recognize these elements consciously.
True Worship of God
John 4:23-24 adds a valuable element to our understanding of this:
But the hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth; for the Father is seeking such to worship Him. God is Spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth.
The American Thanksgiving Day is not automatically and arbitrarily on God's "hit list." It is an observance whose beauty is in the eye—or the heart or mind—of the beholder.
God says we are to worship HIM in spirit and truth. The woman and Jesus were discussing the merits of their worship. Which was better, Mt. Gerizim or Mt. Zion? Jesus, after confirming the unique position of the Jews in God's plan, tells the woman that the Samaritans' worship was deficient. It was ignorant because they rejected all the Old Testament except the Pentateuch, and her ancestors were guilty of syncretizing what truth they had with forms of worship brought from their ancestral homeland.
Then He makes the assertion that applies here. God is spirit, and his worshippers must worship Him in spirit and truth. Being spirit, God is not confined to material things, so idols are totally irrelevant as worship aids. Being spirit, God is not confined to places, so even Jerusalem is irrelevant as a place of worship. His Spirit permeates the entire universe (Psalm 139)! Being spirit and a purposeful God, He is pleased only with what resembles Him. Thus, worship must be of a spiritual nature. The essence of true worship of God must be on His terms and in accord with His nature. It must spring from a knowledgeable, devoted heart under the influence of His Holy Spirit.
What God is looking for in those who worship Him is a demonstration in their lives of the fruits of His Spirit. Love of Him, love of the brethren, joy in living, peace through the security of living by faith, and faithful loyalty in keeping God's commands. Thanksgiving Day does not happen in a vacuum. To observe it properly, we have to tie it directly to our everyday life. To be truly acceptable, it cannot be just a once-a-year affair when we suddenly remember God because someone in government has jogged our memory!
The major problem with Thanksgiving is not that it is pagan. As Zechariah 7 teaches, as a nation we have abused a right principle until it is no longer being kept in the spirit and truth of even its original national intention, let alone as a truly godly, acceptable offering. Thanksgiving is a victim of the people's general spiritual decline and their loss of truth and respect for the God of creation. II Timothy 3:1-2 says,
But know this, that in the last days perilous times will come: For men will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boasters, proud, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, unthankful, unholy. . . .
"Thanksgiving" means virtually the same thing in Hebrew, Greek and English: a heartfelt and cheerful acknowledgment of favors bestowed on us by others. This is especially interesting because it involves consciously thinking about a circumstance that makes one feel a sense of obligation. The English "thank" comes from the same root as "think." Its Indo-European root is tong, whose basic meaning is "to know or form in the mind, regard or consider; to determine by reflecting." Thanking involves thinking. Spiritually, it is consciously looking for the good with God in view.
Some say that ingratitude is the most common of sins. II Timothy 3:2 shows that it is a hallmark of the end-time generations not to consider, or reflect deeply upon God's part in our peace, prosperity and liberties. This is a practice that we must develop by exercising it on a daily basis.
The Greek word translated unthankful, means "to refuse to recognize debts; to feel one has the right to services and be without obligation." The American attitude is not disregard of God, but rather failing to remember the good He has done. We have become indifferent in relating blessings to God, and He calls upon us to reverse this in our lives. This right worship of Him requires a true knowledge of Him, keeping His commandments and steady communication with Him in prayer and study so we really come to know Him. Then we can be truly thankful on a daily basis.
Psalm 10:4 says this about the ungodly, "The wicked in his proud countenance does not seek God; God is in none of his thoughts." This would never happen to a godly person. He is seeking God and thinking about Him almost constantly because he wants to honor and glorify Him with every word and deed. Thus he constantly relates the events of his personal life to God because he is living by faith. When the nation is supposed to give thanks, as on Thanksgiving Day, he is aware of the events of his nation's life and history and can see how God has intervened, provided for, fought for and saved it.
The Sacrifice of Praise
Thanksgiving arises from gratitude and in turn brings forth praise. Praise means "to value or price, hence to express a favorable judgment of." Judgment requires thinking, evaluating. Thus, praise is the joyous expression of thoughtful gratitude and thanksgiving for blessing, help, or favors given. These all have their basis in thinking directed toward God. Unless the mind is exercised daily in this, it will not be in the habit of thinking of God in relation to blessings. It will be virtually empty of thoughts of gratitude, thankfulness and praise when the national holiday arrives.
Hebrews 13:15 reads, "Therefore by Him let us continually offer the sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of our lips, giving thanks to His name." The Bible links thanks and praise so closely that they almost seem to be the same thing. They are not, but they are closely related. The reason they often appear together is that praise grows out of thanksgiving. The process goes from being grateful to God to extolling, lauding, commending and acclaiming Him for His works, purpose and nature.
Notice that Paul describes them as a sacrifice, giving up some cherished thing for the sake of another. We must give up time, energy and effort to think about, thank and praise God for the good He has done. We could have used this time, energy and effort on ourselves or taken it for granted as owed to us as our right or privilege. Perhaps this magnifies what is wrong with Thanksgiving in America. Though not pagan, Americans still do not keep it in honor of God, as their conduct shows. It is thus a hollow shell of what it could be and should be to us.
David provides excellent advice for the sons of God regarding this holiday:
Bless the LORD, O my soul; and all that is within me, bless His holy name! Bless the LORD, O my soul, and forget not all His benefits: who forgives all your iniquities, who heals all your diseases, who redeems your life from destruction, who crowns you with lovingkindness and tender mercies, who satisfies your mouth with good things, so that your youth is renewed like the eagle's. (Psalm 103:1-5)
Thanksgiving in America has become a parody, almost a mockery, but there is no reason why we cannot observe it in its best intended purpose and spirit. Though others may focus on the wrong things (partying, food and entertainment), we can make it a true thanksgiving to God, enhanced by eating a fine meal in company with family and friends, especially those of like spiritual mind.
Let us not allow the God of creation—our Savior, Provider, Healer, the One who tests our hearts and gives us a great hope, His Spirit and truth—ever be far from our minds at any time. Then we can properly relate and give thanks for all things.