The "first Thanksgiving" is often traced back to Plymouth in 1621, but the history of giving thanks for the harvest runs much, much deeper. 

Most people think of Thanksgiving as an entirely secular holiday – free of both the religious connections held by holidays like Christmas and Easter, and the patriotic ties that come with events like the 4th of July and Veteran’s Day.

It’s just a day for feasting, giving thanks, and spending time with loved ones. Nothing else to see here… right?

Well, not exactly. In fact, Thanksgiving has religious roots that run deep – so deep that they’re easy to miss at first glance.

This is the story of how the pagans held the original Thanksgiving, how the Christian Church eventually coopted the holiday as its own, and how the symbolic evidence survives to this day.

Here’s everything you didn’t know about the (real) history of Thanksgiving.

Feasting With the Old Gods

Before the rise of Christianity in the western world, the holiday calendar looked a lot different than it does today. Across Europe, the pre-Christian pagans held all manner of seasonal celebrations – marking the coming of spring, for example, as well as the summer and winter solstices.

But some of the biggest festivals occurred around harvest time.

This was a time to give thanks to the gods for a bountiful harvest and to celebrate the success of another growing season.

There were many different types of harvest festivals, but the biggest three were Lammas, Mabon, and Samhain – each honoring different gods and celebrating different parts of the harvest and the changing of the seasons.  

Christians Capitalize on Pagan Festivals

All holidays adapt and evolve as time passes – it’s only natural.

However, pagan holidays have a remarkable track record of (unwillingly) becoming the basis for Christian celebrations. Again and again throughout history, the Christian Church has coopted pagan festivals for its benefit.

From Christmas to Easter, Christians who sought to supplant the pagan faith with their own mastered the technique of incorporating pagan symbols, traditions, and lore into newly-created Christian holidays – thus making it easier to convert more people to the Church.

As you may have suspected, harvest festivals are no different.

The Rise of Harvest Home

As Christianity overtook the pagan faith as the most popular religion in Europe, the celebrations of the harvest were bound to evolve, too.  

In England and Ireland, what emerged was a three-day festival called Harvest Home that featured a great feast to mark the last of the grain getting safely stored for the winter.

This modified tradition incorporated elements of pagan customs, but also had some heavily Christian influences (the festival began with a special church service, for example).  

It was this Christianized harvest festival that provided the basis for the American holiday of Thanksgiving.

And yet, there is another twist to the story.

Puritans Shun Pagan Roots

Here’s the thing: the Puritans – the first English settlers in North America – weren’t big on celebrating Harvest Home.   

In fact, they rejected this harvest festival entirely (as well as other holidays like Christmas and Easter) due to their pagan roots.

The Puritans recognized that pagan celebrations had been merged with Christian beliefs with the goal of converting people to the faith, and thus they weren’t comfortable participating.

But there were good reasons to celebrate the harvest. Starvation was a real threat for early European settlers in North America, and especially in New England, where the winter climate was fierce and unforgiving.

The First Thanksgiving

The "first Thanksgiving" is widely traced back to Plymouth in 1621, when members of the Wampanoag tribe gathered with the Pilgrims for a harvest feast (which perhaps saved the newcomers from starvation). 

We put that in quotes because this certainly wasn't the first harvest festival ever recorded, nor the first to take place in North America.

Further, many don't view the first Thanksgiving as an event worth celebrating at all. For people of Native American ancestry, this event marks the beginning of centuries of turmoil, death, and destruction of their lands at the hands of white settlers.  

Native American Harvest Festivals

Like the pagans of Europe, for thousands of years, Native American tribes had been holding harvest celebrations to thank their gods and spirits for the bounty of the season.

Although harvest deities varied from tribe to tribe, many Native American cultures paid homage to "creator gods" that were believed to have helped the Great Spirit complete the earth in its physical form. One such creator god was the Earth Mother, who some tribes believed was the one to bring corn – a harvest staple – to the Native peoples. 

One major celebration occurred around the Harvest Moon in September, when tribes would gather for a harvest feast and give thanks to the crops that brought life to the community. Festivities would often involve dancing, drumming circles, and different types of games.

Tradition Spreads Far and Wide

European settlers in North America continued this ancient tradition of giving thanks, creating their own harvest holidays to celebrate the season’s bounty (though any praise in their versions would go to the Christian God).

Different regions and religious denominations across the U.S. would develop unique versions of this seasonal celebration. However, it wasn’t until the late 19th century that the country rallied around a unified national holiday that was officially named “Thanksgiving.”

But even in this modern version of the ancient harvest celebration – many centuries removed from its pre-Christian roots – we can still see prominent symbols from other religions.

Thanksgiving Religious Symbolism

The Cornucopia is also referred to as the “horn of plenty.”

1) Cornucopia

Among the images closely associated with Thanksgiving is the Cornucopia – a horn-shaped basket that is typically depicted overflowing with foods of the fall harvest like squash, corn, and apples.

Far from a Thanksgiving creation, the Cornucopia (also referred to as the “horn of plenty”) actually traces its roots back to ancient Greek mythology.

According to myth, the she-goat Amalthea nursed a baby Zeus in a cave on the island of Crete. One day, Zeus accidentally broke off her horn. As a sign of gratitude, Zeus made sure the horn was always full of whatever goods the owner desired.

The Cornucopia later became a sacred symbol of the harvest in Celtic pagan tradition.

And today, this symbol of plenty lives on as part of the Thanksgiving holiday – in artwork, decorations, and centerpieces.

2) Turkey

It would be hard to find a more ubiquitous symbol of modern Thanksgiving than the turkey, which studies show is eaten by 90% of American households on Thanksgiving. 

But did you know its origin at the Thanksgiving dinner table likely stems from Native American tradition?

Many tribes view the turkey as a symbol of fertility and abundance. Turkey is a totem animal, and turkey feathers also carry special importance and are used in certain Native American rituals. 

Although experts disagree on whether the "first Thanksgiving" included turkey, that this large bird has become so prominently featured at Thanksgiving tables is no accident.

3) Football

Football on Thanksgiving is also a deeply rooted tradition. From family members gathering for pickup games in the backyard, to Detroit Lions fans gathering around the TV to watch their team lose, football is an integral part of the holiday. 

And some experts suggest there's an ancient explanation for that. 

In addition to large feasts, Celtic pagan harvest festivals often featured some sort of sporting event or athletic competition. 

One such festival was the Irish celebration of Lughnasadh, during which people would compete in events like wrestling and archery. 

In that sense, football on Thanksgiving is the continuation of a centuries-old harvest festival tradition. 

What are your thoughts? Are there any other examples of pagan or Native American symbolism in Thanksgiving that we may have missed?

32 comments

  1. Douglas Robert Spindler's Avatar Douglas Robert Spindler

    Lots of false, dis and misinformation here. If Thanksgiving has a Christian religious origin, why are there so few countries in Europe that know or even celebrate Thanksgiving.

    What do Native Americans have to be thankful for on Thanksgiving? The white Europeans who fed them stole their land, took their food, killed off many of them, stole their children and enslaved many forcing them to be Christians or die.

    American’s have the Native American’s to thank for the American football we have today. Fact check and you will find Pop Warner was the football coach for the Native Americas at the Carlisle Indian Industrial School.

    Sad this article doesn’t mention any of this.

    1. Richard Darwin Richards's Avatar Richard Darwin Richards

      Most countries are godless and don't celebrate any holidays such as this. The US believed in God at one time and was a great country for that reason.

      1. Amy Minckler's Avatar Amy Minckler

        Actually they are many places that have a harvest festival and all predate the christian religion. Countries are not godless. They just don't have the same god that you do. In fact in 1797 the Treaty of Tripoli, declares that “the Government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion. This is why there is a separation of church and state.

        We were once a great country because people cared about each other. It is the evil taint of power and money that has turned many a heart. Also just because a person doesn't "follow a god" does not mean that they are incapable of caring or having morals. If that were true people predating Christianity would have never lasted long enough for Christianity to appear.

        They (Christians) pulled their dogma from another older religion (Judaism). God didn't just suddenly appear and create the Christian religion. There has always been a belief in a greater power. The only difference being in what these powers were named. Even Christians have multiple names for god. (https://www.agapebiblestudy.com/documents/The%20Many%20Names%20of%20God.htm).

        Religion and morals are separate things. Morals are "rules" put in place that enable people to live cooperatively in a group. Morals are what this country is missing not religion.

        1. Douglas Robert Spindler's Avatar Douglas Robert Spindler

          @Amy Minckler Well said, but I will differ with you about one point you stated. "We were once a great country because people cared about each other." We didn't care about the Native peoples, "we" killed many, stole their land and enslaved many forcing them to be Christians. Then "we" purchased slaves at auctions and many were treated poorly killing many when productivity decreased.

          If you remember your American history review Manifest Destiny. The famous painting "American Progress" shows just how much those early White European Christian illegal immigrants murdered, rapped, stole and pillaged what was to become the United States in the name of God. Look at the mess they left us with to clean-up.

          1. Amy Minckler's Avatar Amy Minckler

            Hi, being of Native descent, this holiday (and Columbus day) have always been sore points for me. I was doing my best to add to the discussion without devolving into a secondary topic :). Religion and politics are horrid bedfellows and are the horror story version of psychologically conjoined twins. I try my hardest to stay on topic as I know I am one to get very high up on my soapbox when it comes to my heritage.

            I do not think the people of today are responsible for their ancestors actions. I do not take offense easily. But when someone goes off about lazy, casino rich Natives who need to get off their bums and join the United States like the good little conquered savages they are, I do take offense.

            *Nods and steps off her soapbox" :D

      2. Douglas Robert Spindler's Avatar Douglas Robert Spindler

        @Richard Darwin Richards Who told you "Most countries are godless and don't celebrate any holidays"? I can't name on country that doesn't celebrate many holidays.

        What made America Great were all of the White European illegal aliens who came to the Americas and stole, murdered, rapped, pillaged, brought slaves and and enslaved the Native peoples in the name of God branding it as Manifest Destiny.

        I would encourage you to fact check ALL of my claims as you are currently have a believing in a false God and beliefs.

  1. Rev. Dr. Father JJ's Avatar Rev. Dr. Father JJ

    Rodney...could you post your comment a few more times please...just for effect

  1. Colleen McAllister's Avatar Colleen McAllister

    None of this matters to me; I celebrate my God on that day thanking Him for all the blessings of the past 12 months. If some origins are pagan than so be it. What matters is how I celebrate and who I celebrate.

  1. Michael Wolfenbarger's Avatar Michael Wolfenbarger

    It is the way we look at,how we as people believe in . We as people take godly things, that are for God.we are just people, we come to see the things we did that is not right, so daily we look at are self ,at the end of the day,ask God to help us daily, the problem comes when man thinks he is god.

    1. Richard Darwin Richards's Avatar Richard Darwin Richards

      Amen!!!

  1. Rodney Knight's Avatar Rodney Knight

    We celebrate thanks giving gather family around the table for the dinner watch football on the television only a fool would think thiers is the only tradition to follow each family had their own as the same with foods they served turkey or ham or big beef roast mashed potatoes macaroni and cheese baked yams baked potatoes caked pudding fruit pies coleslaw every family had a dish they ate at Thanksgiving and a way to celebrate it let's us not argue over the what and just the people we love and care about on this holiday

    1. Ealdormon Piparskeggr Robinson's Avatar Ealdormon Piparskeggr Robinson

      Rodney, might be a computer glitch, but this got posted 7 times.

    2. Robert A Stiff's Avatar Robert A Stiff

      Rodney..does your keyboard have no commas or period keys?

  1. Richard Darwin Richards's Avatar Richard Darwin Richards

    We knew football had Satanic origins, now take a knee to the nfl once and for all!!!

  1. Carl Bernard Elfstrom's Avatar Carl Bernard Elfstrom

    My dictionary states that morals are an individual's set of principles.

  1. Thomas J Kasprik's Avatar Thomas J Kasprik

    This is what I love about Festivus. I is a totally made up holiday and it can be celebrated any way to chose No roots, no rituals, no adaptation, not even tinsel

    A FESTIVUS FOR THE REST OF US

  1. David Wright Tillman's Avatar David Wright Tillman

    I agree with some of the things other people are posting. Some of these things are a bit of a stretch, like the Football one. The reason people in the Northern Hemisphere all around the globe have fall festivals this time of year is because this is when the crops came in. You could just as easily make the argument the holiday coincides with the Israelite Festival of Booths, which also happens around this time of year. And it makes sense the Pilgrims of 17th century Massachusettes might have had a feast to celebrate just being alive after all they endured without thinking "Boy, I sure miss Thor". I'm a atheistic Satanist, and I approve this message.

  1. Rodney Knight's Avatar Rodney Knight

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  1. Rodney Knight's Avatar Rodney Knight

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  1. Rodney Knight's Avatar Rodney Knight

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  1. Rodney Knight's Avatar Rodney Knight

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  1. Rodney Knight's Avatar Rodney Knight

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  1. Pastor Jim's Avatar Pastor Jim

    For me Thanksgiving is a holiday I observe to remind me of my gift of life, the opportunity to pursue my goals, express my spirituality, and reconcile the many facets and chapters of my 70 years. I don't mean to come across as if I'm virtue signaling... my purpose is simply to offset the negativity espoused by those above who know no better.

    1. Rev. Dr. Father JJ's Avatar Rev. Dr. Father JJ

      which means you're virtue signaling

  1. Daniel Gray's Avatar Daniel Gray

    Typical, when you cant just accept a holiday that allows families to gather together to feast and celebrate, you go through and make up lies and myths to try and destroy it. I am Native American and I can assure you that not one thing that was said about Native American history and tradition is factual. All this is, is just another pitiful attempt to try and destroy a holiday. And I bet the same ones whining and crying about this are the same ones who would feel themselves ill used if they actually had to work on this day instead of getting a 4 day weekend.

    1. Carl Bernard Elfstrom's Avatar Carl Bernard Elfstrom

      Shout, shout, let it all out! It sure feels good to sometimes vent, doesn't it Daniel?

  1. Rod Gesner's Avatar Rod Gesner

    Wampanoag may have attempted generosity; However the Pilgrims thanksgiving story is Typical white mans Lies... They slaughtered a whole tribal Village stealing the foods gathered there.. That is the ritual the xstains repeated from one coast to the other; Murdering Rapeing and Pillaging the original inhabitants killing with disease, starvation and horrific torture the better part of 100million from the original tribal cultures. To truly honour this holiday we should be giving lands crops and meats to all the remaining tribes untill they At LEAST GET THEIR ORIGINAL TREATY LANDS AND SOVERIEGN RIGHTS RETURNED. AS WELL AS GIVING THEM STEWARDSHIP CONTROL OF ALL FEDERAL AND STATE PARKS AND FORESTS, DNR LANDS. COASTAL AND INLAND FISHERIES.. THAT WOULDN'T BEGIN TO COMPENSATE THEM FOR ALL THE CRIMES AGAINST THEM AND LIES TOLD; BUT IT'S THE BEST WE COULD DO WITHOUT BECOMING UNWELCOME REFUGEES IN AN ALREADY REFUGEE OVERTAXED EUROPE.

  1. William Joseph Moczan's Avatar William Joseph Moczan

    $&@? YOU

  1. Greg Formoe's Avatar Greg Formoe

    No supernatural required, natural to have a harvest festival.

  1. Robert A Stiff's Avatar Robert A Stiff

    My family originated in England and as a child in Oklahoma, my grandparents always called Thanksgiving 'Harvest Home'.

  1. Douglas Person's Avatar Douglas Person

    That I will agree with. The true history of the bible should give any thinking person pause. It is no way to define one's life. Sin, Heaven and Hell are all concepts that are fundamentally used to control people. Human behavior is not sin. There is no God above us getting angry over our less than perfect behavior.

    There is a simple concept such as this. The opposite of light is darkness. Light is something, darkness is nothing. Cold is the opposite of warm (or hot). But cold is the lack of heat, not a thing of its own self. God is love. The opposite of love is emptiness, loneliness being apart from love. No God I believe in would ever be angry with His children. All children (us) are imperfect. If God wanted us to be perfect he would have made us so. Instead he gave us the tools to evolve.

    We can all chose the path of our lives. We can chose a path closer to God and in so doing live a life where compassion, generosity, empathy to each other are most important. Or we can chose a path far from the light, warmth and belongingness. And here we will live in our own Hell. We turn from the light and chose selfishness. We chose to disregard the pain of others especially the pain we create.

    (This is a small part of a sermon I wrote) If I could give advice to any who would listen it would to be give great care to the wonderful Earth and recognize it as God's greatest gift. How we treat it is a reflection of our love for God. How we respond to other's needs defines our closeness to God's love. It is imperative that we not put ourselves in a place of the judgement of others. Judgement does not belong to us. If we have more than enough and we are aware that someone else does not, we must be generous. If we see someone in pain, whether it be physical or emotional, give comfort, Have empathy, even if it means to carry another's pain.

    In all the things we do, being good stewards of our home, finding ways to give of ourselves to the betterment of others. Every act of love and kindness brings us closer to God and the closer we are to God the greater joy we will feel in life. In many simple acts that we make into a way of life, we choose God over darkness.

    If God's love is like light than chose to be where it shines brightest. Do not walk in darkness but do not judge those who do. Be a guide, be gentle, be kind, be generous, forgive that you may be forgiven, be free of judgement. Let go of anger. Believe, as the words that define ULC, that we are all children of the same universe and thus the same God.

    So much harm has been done in God's name and in that we have created suffering. Even today, there are those in positions of great power that create unimaginable pain. It is a burden we all share and we must endeavor to rise above.

    No matter who you are, where you are, or what you have done in your life - you are my brothers and sisters as you each other's. I choose love, I choose to seek the light, I choose to bring others to the light. I choose to believe that we are all one, all of use God's children, all of us responsible for this world - this greatest gift of God. I choose to believe that only by uniting all of humanity in an understanding of God's true nature, well we find true world peace and find an end to human suffering.

    If there is one great sin - than its name is greed. Greed for power, greed for wealth. Let us all choose love, God's love, for it is all that He is.

    God created not just the Earth but all that we see in this Universe. For God placed his finger upon a single point and gave a part of his perfect self that it would expand and become all that we see. We are each made not in his image but of the very essence of God's self. (I use the male pronoun, but God is neither male nor female).

    (This is all what I remember of a sermon I gave in a park in Los Angles 55 years ago)

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