Giving thanks at harvest time is an ancient custom. Thanks offerings to God are mentioned several times in the Bible. For example: “And this is the law of sacrifice of peace offerings which he shall offer unto the Lord. If he offers it for a thanksgiving, then he shall offer with the sacrifice unleavened cakes mingled with oil ... Besides the cakes, he shall offer leavened bread” (Lev. 12-12).
In England, thanksgiving festivals, originally known as Harvest Homes, are still often called that. This means the harvest has been accomplished. It has been brought home.
Early English festivities included displaying a Harvest-Queen image representing Ceres, Roman goddess of corn and fertility. Long after Christianity was adopted throughout the western world, Ceres was still honoured in this way although most Christians had forgotten (or never knew) who Ceres was.
Today’s word, “cereal,” comes from the name of that ancient goddess.
In other countries, end-of-summer festivals continue to flourish. Austria, for example, still welcomes its cows home from summer pastures in the mountains.
Das Dankfest is the German word for Thanksgiving. India’s harvest festival is Makar Sankranti. In the Czech Republic, the celebration is Posviceni.
But the Feast of St. Martin of Tours (November 11) is celebrated all across Europe as a harvest festival. Even profoundly Protestant countries, like Holland, commemorate St. Martin’s Day (Sint Maarten).
St. Martin of Tours (c. 316-97) was born in Hungary and was Bishop of Tours, France, when he died.
Despite all this, and despite the fact most of the world had no Pilgrims, the U.S. claims that the Pilgrim Fathers instituted the first Thanksgiving. Still, a day dedicated to thanking God is a good idea and we shouldn’t begrudge crediting those Pilgrims with making Thanksgiving important.
And who were those Pilgrims?
They were a break-away Puritan sect often called “separatists,” who believed the original Puritan religion had remained too “Catholick.” They adhered to a severe brand of Calvinistic Protestantism.
These joyless Pilgrims observed neither Christmas nor Easter, forbade every kind of work on the Sabbath, and refused to adorn themselves, their clothing, or their meeting houses. Only two sacraments were recognized — baptism and the Lord’s Supper.
Since dancing, non-religious songs and alcohol were forbidden, we can be sure that the first American Thanksgiving was more austere than the holiday Americans enjoy today.
Although many people do credit the Pilgrims as first to observe Thanksgiving, Martin Frobisher celebrated what is considered Canada’s first Thanksgiving 43 years earlier when he ordered a feast to thank God for a safe ocean crossing. This was followed in 1604 by Champlain’s Order of Good Cheer. The Pilgrim fête was in 1621.
Thanksgiving was not an official U.S. holiday until 1863. November 6 was declared Canadian Thanksgiving Day in 1879. Then in 1957, our Thanksgiving Day was made a legal holiday to be observed on the second Monday in October.
Thanks originated in the Old Teutonic thankojen (thanks). It entered English in about 1470 as thancian.
Thanksgiving (1533) means the expression of gratitude, especially the act of giving thanks to God.
Pilgrim (1517) is Early Middle English from Old French pelegrin, ultimately from the Late Latin pelegrinus (stranger).