Thanksgiving Just For Christians?

Several friends and I have debated the nature of Thanksgiving for years. My friends contend that it is a Christian holiday. I disagree. Thanksgiving is in no way intrinsically religious. Of course, not all Christians agree with these particular Christian friends of mine. I imagine many would be surprised to find the proposition even open for debate. But is has come up consistently enough to me, I feel it worth addressing.

Fair warning: I am out to defend my opinion. And I am certainly not out to tell Christians, or other religious people, not to celebrate Thanksgiving in a religious way if they so desire. But more important than my opinion on the matter are the detrimental consequences flowing from the assumption that Thanksgiving is fundamentally Christian. The idea comes out of and underlines an understanding of the United States as a Christian nation, which is itself problematic. But the real issue here is the underlying assumption that non-Christian people are bad people that is so common among certain subsets of Christians. Non-Christians not only have the capability of being thankful, they have the right to give thanks.

Thanksgiving is Not a Religious Holiday

The arguments I have been given for the position that Thanksgiving is religious largely fall along the lines of how religious people celebrate the day: “In everything we do that day, we thank God for all God has given us. We thank God for providing us food as we sit down to eat. We honor God in the community service we do on the holiday weekend as God commanded us.” I have nothing against this way of celebrating. By all means, Christians should celebrate this way if they want to. My point is this is not a necessary part of Thanksgiving. This is not the only way to give thanks.

I am often directed to Bible verses about thankfulness. I am not sent to Bible passages that provide etymology for the day or describe the first Thanksgiving. I am not given biblical instructions about how to celebrate Thanksgiving. Passover, Christmas, and other religious holy days have liturgies. Thanksgiving has parades and feasts.

Besides being told about the Christian style of observance and thankfulness Bible verses, the final argument I run into is that the first Thanksgiving was celebrated by Christians. They created the day and surely they explicitly observed with God at the center of their activities. While I cannot argue that the Christians present at the first Thanksgiving no doubt had God very much in mind, that in itself does not make Thanksgiving intrinsically Christian. Not to mention all the people there who were decidedly not Christian. Like Natives—who brought much of the food for the feast.

The Problem with Saying Thanksgiving is Christian

My friends and I all know Thanksgiving is a relatively new ritual. Christmas celebrations have their roots in the biblical story of the birth of Jesus. The Israelites had Passover. Jesus broke bread with his apostles one last time before his arrest. But Thanksgiving does not fall on Holy Thursday. Even if my Christian friends can’t tell me what president federally formalized Thanksgiving, they (and I) can recite the grade school story we all learned—complete with acrostic buckle hats and pumpkin pie.

The fact that we all know this history of Thanksgiving makes insistence on its religious essence even more worrisome. This insistence belies an opinion that I don’t think my friends could—or ever would—consciously make. We likely wouldn’t be friends if they did. This insistence belies a tacit assumption that thankfulness is somehow a Christian peculiarity. Or, at the very least, that Christian thankfulness is somehow superior, or somehow more blessed, than the thankfulness of anyone else. If you are not thankful to God for the blessings in your life, then how can you be thankful for anything? An assumed suite of Christian characteristics, that the rest of us necessarily lack, includes thankfulness, compassion, selflessness, charity. On this dogmatic ground, non-Christians may or may not be seen as outright wicked, but their thankfulness, compassion, selflessness, and charity is second-rate at best.

I don’t for a second believe my Christian friends believe me wicked. But continuing to brand Thanksgiving as essentially Christian plays into the narratives of those who do see all non-Christians as inherently wicked. Those narratives are dangerous and oppressive. As Thanksgiving approaches, I am thankful for many blessings in my life—not least of which are my friends, including my debate partners. I am perhaps most thankful for the opportunity, in the homeland of Thanksgiving, to advocate for the proposition that giving thanks is for everyone.

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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3 thoughts on “Thanksgiving Just For Christians?

  1. Wendy, thanks for sharing your thoughts on Thanksgiving. The question of it being a Christian holiday is an important one! I disagree with you on a number of points though.

    First, is that you point to the lack of Biblical evidence for Thanksgiving as a reason why the holiday is not Christian. I agree that it does not say anywhere in the Bible that people should celebrate Thanksgiving. This does not exclude the possibility of post-biblical holidays being developed. As a Jew, we have a number of holidays that are not mentioned in Tanakh, like Chanukkah or TuBishvat. We also have holidays that have developed in more recent years in response to contemporary events, like Yom HaShoah (Holocaust remembrance) and Yom Hazikaron (Israeli memorial day). My point is that religious practices and holidays evolve and are created over time. Just because something is not ancient, does not mean that it is not Christian (or Jewish).

    On a side note, I’m curious about your phrasing that the “Israelites had Passover.” We Jews still have Passover today.

    I’m not sure how you think that Thanksgiving being Christian would make gratitude a uniquely Christian practice. Jews have Tisha B’Av (another post-biblical holiday) that is a day of mourning and sadness, but that doesn’t make mourning and sadness exclusively Jewish. Yom Kippur is about atonement, but we don’t think that we are the only ones who practice atonement. I believe it is necessary to reach the universal (gratitude) through the particularities of practice (Thanksgiving).

    I’m curious about how you understand seeing Thanksgiving as Christian as marking Christian gratitude as superior or based on the idea that non-Christians can’t express gratitude. Judaism offers many different ways to express gratitude (e.g. blessings before and after eating). Recognizing the Christianity of Thanksgiving does not prevent me or anyone else from respecting non-Christian gratitude practices.

    It is only if we hold Thanksgiving up as supreme and universal (which I believe only reifies Christian hegemony) do we see non-Christians as “wicked” in any way. By recognizing its Christian particularity, we actually do a great service to undermining Christian hegemony.

    Ignoring the Christianity of Thanksgiving erases the violent ideology of the holiday itself (colonialism, imperialistic, etc.) and the relationship that Christianity and the church have have had to this work. Recognizing the fact that Thanksgiving comes from Christians is actually central to doing the work of imperialism, colonialism, racism, and Christian hegemony that are indeed central to the holiday and our national myths.

  2. I was very interested to read this article, and Alex’s response. I would ask a different question, “is Thanksgiving a Jewish holiday?”

    It is widely believed that Thanksgiving is based on the Jewish holiday of Sukkot, a harvest festival of thanksgiving. There are many articles posted about this online. I’ll offer one, here:

    Regardless of our individual understandings or beliefs about Thanksgiving, I’ve always believed this is an opportunity for all Americans to come together and appreciate our commonalities, as well as celebrate our differences.

    May we all be blessed this Thanksgiving with companionship, peace, and joy!

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