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What is Thanksgiving?

When I look up things like Thanksgiving meaning and Thanksgiving origin online, the results are strange. If it’s a religious holiday, why is it public? If it’s about food, why does it take up most of a week? What is Thanksgiving all about, in this century?

Megan Page

in Events and Holidays

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Daniel King on November 15, 2018

You must have found Bing’s definition: Thanksgiving is the expression of gratitude, especially to God, or a North American holiday involving religious observances and turkey. (http://www.bing.com/search?q=what+is+thanksgiving.) In practice, it also involves football.

Is there a thought that can unify these disparate concepts? The author(s) of the ThanksgivingDay.org website think so: “Thanksgiving is America’s preeminent day.” (http://www.thanksgiving-day.org/origin-thanksgiving-day.html.) Worldwide, most cultures have harvest festivals; religious people think of these festivals as ways to express gratitude to God as they understand God, and less religious people think of them as occasions to share food with friends and family.

There’s little dispute that North Americans have generally had abundant reasons for Thanksgiving. In church, sermons may be preached on “Thanksgiving in the Bible”; not only Sukkoth and Shavuot but also Purim and Hanukah may be identified as ancient thanksgiving holiday traditions. Such thoughts on the spiritual meaning of Thanksgiving are typically private, though abundant: Thanksgiving is a patriotic holiday that fits into all religious—and irreligious—traditions. It has meaning for everyone.

The origin of Thanksgiving in North America (as documented in English) reflects the Wampanoag tradition of celebrating hunting and harvest with feasts of thanksgiving to the spirits and bonding with neighbors, the English tradition of harvest festivals, the Pilgrims’ food insecurity, and the survival fears of the first Europeans in Canada
(stories at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thanksgiving_(Canada)). According to Edward Winslow, the Pilgrims’ first Thanksgiving feast started the tradition of celebrating for three days (https://www.tripsavvy.com/when-is-thanksgiving-1599187). Though US (English) and Canadian Thanksgiving holidays celebrate different “firsts” in history, some scholars say the true “first” Christian Thanksgiving celebration on the continent took place even further in the past, among Spanish explorers in Texas.

While governments in the United States and Canada recognize only one date for “Thanksgiving Day,” in both countries the actual celebration extends over the adjacent weekend. In the US, Thanksgiving breaks often begin on Wednesday (“Blackout Day” at schools where lights are switched off as people leave) and may extend into the following week.

The meaning of Thanksgiving is and has always been an individual decision.

Roger Moore4 months ago

So what does Thanksgiving mean to you, the writer? I understand that what it means to the person asking the question may be different, but how do you explain Thanksgiving’s meaning for kids? One year we were allowed to take the preceding Wednesday and half of Tuesday off to go to the football semifinals, and then on the following Sunday night, it snowed enough that we got the following Monday and Tuesday off school. A full week off school was an occasion of thanksgiving for kids! Looking back, I would imagine that adults had a different point of view.

Children usually like food so I’d guess that, if adults did what the Pilgrims and Puritans used to do and banned snacks between meals, then gave thanks for food before they started eating, the emotion of thankfulness would be easy for them to understand. They were slightly hungry; now they’re full.

Craig Stewart4 months ago

What about Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving when business owners give thanks that they can start the Christmas marketing that puts their business “back in the black”? (Money received used to be noted with black ink, money paid out with red, and the day’s total in black or red to show profit or loss.) Some shoppers’ observance of Black Friday has nothing to do with Thanksgiving origin and Thanksgiving meaning, but if you think about it, the actual holiday does. For many of us, selling merchandise has replaced harvesting. 


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