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.