November 17, 2020

The Christianization of Thanksgiving

thanksgiving fall

Like Halloween, I fondly remember many Thanksgivings past for what they were not: religious holidays. Growing up, Thanksgiving was almost never made into any sort of religious celebration. I have to add the "almost" because this was not necessarily true when my family would go to friends' homes for dinner. On these occasions, prayers would often be imposed on the guests, and the day would sometimes be treated as if it was a religious (i.e., Christian) holiday.

I have heard many Christians claim that the entire notion of giving thanks has Christian roots and that this necessarily makes Thanksgiving a Christian holiday. As many times as I have heard this claim, I have real difficulty imagining that nobody every thanked anyone else prior to the time when a historical Jesus is supposed to have lived. Humans worshiped a variety of gods long before Biblical times, and we have always had other humans. Do modern Christians really expect us to believe that no human expressed feelings of gratitude prior to the advent of the Jesus character?

One Thanksgiving tradition in which I could almost always count on having to participate involved each guest taking turns and publicly sharing why he/she was thankful. I was never crazy about this tradition and was often puzzled how some people inevitably used it as an opportunity to brag about their good fortune. But it seemed worse when it was done as part of a prayer (i.e., guests were required to hold hands, bow their heads, and go around the table sharing the reasons for their gratitude during a prayer containing Jesus references). Who or what is it that I am thanking for my health? Fate? Luck? My doctor? The flying spaghetti monster? Of course, it was supposed to be Jesus. In many American households, Thanksgiving is treated as a Christian holiday. I suppose one could say that I am thankful it wasn't one in mine.

I did not think about this much until I went away to college and met non-Christians from several other countries. Some of them attended Thanksgiving dinners with new friends here in the U.S. And not surprisingly, some were exposed to some of the Christian elements of Thanksgiving I mentioned above. I suppose the families hosting them didn't bother to think about what that might be like for them. I guess that's one of the perks of privilege: not having to think about others.

An early version of this post appeared on Atheist Revolution in 2005. It was revised and expanded in 2020.