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
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.
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.
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?