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The Religious Roots of Thanksgiving

Updated: Feb 17

Did you know that the way we celebrate Thanksgiving is actually the opposite of the way the original pilgrims at Plymouth celebrated Thanksgiving?

Although I performed well in traditional school, I completely lost interest in the subject of history during from my public school education. Memorizing dates and names just didn’t seem beneficial to me. During the first few years of homeschooling my own children, I learned to appreciate and enjoy history and learning from the mistakes and accomplishments of our forefathers. However, it was living in New England for our year that really grew a thirst for understanding and learning the subject. While my husband attended a senior leadership school, thanks to the US military, my kids and I explored the many nearby historical sites on field-trip Fridays. History leapt to life as we walked and stood on the ground of so many significant events from our nation’s founding.

My adult love of history caused me to delve into the spiritual significance of each of the holidays we celebrated as Americans and Christians. Almost every holiday we celebrate as Americans has roots in a way of honoring and celebrating God (for more on this, read different posts of mine on the holidays). It’s hard to say which holiday is more renowned as American - Thanksgiving or Independence Day. Most would agree that Thanksgiving is more grounded in tradition and taught more extensively in our schools, maybe because of where it falls in the school year. My research has taught me that story that I grew up learning about Thanksgiving is not the truth.

When I first stumbled on this finding, I couldn’t believe it. Reenacting the original thanksgiving with pilgrim buckets and hats, and Indian headdresses was one of my earliest memories from school. Bringing home a brightly colored turkey craft is a part of most American children’s childhood, isn’t it?

I’ve read both secular and religious accounts that agree with my findings, but the most in-depth analysis is told in The First Thanksgiving: What the Real Story Tells Us About Loving God and Learning from History by Robert Tracy McKenzie. In his book, McKenzie breaks down his findings in articulate and researched detail and uses original sources for his findings. He (and other sources) found that the traditional Thanksgiving, which we’ve been told was celebrated in 1621 was not called a “thanksgiving” by the Pilgrims and was a harvest festival, which did include some of the Wampanoag Indians. The Plymouth pilgrims did celebrate a religious thanksgiving which was recorded 1623, but it may have taken place in other times before then. A religious thanksgiving, as celebrated by the Pilgrims, was marked by private fasting, prayer, singing of the Psalms, and is very unlikely to have included the Wampanoag Indians. The Calvinist Pilgrims likely would have issued a call for all citizens to repent and pray for God to intervene in a trying physical circumstance. In 1623, they likely were imploring God to intervene in rescuing them from their dire hunger, lack of crops due to drought, and the continued rising numbers of death of their citizens. Miraculously, God answered their prayers that very evening, as Bradford recorded in his journal, “ it began to rain with sweet and gentle showers which gave them cause of rejoicing and blessing God.” ( There is historical evidence for the Plymouth Colony celebrating an autumn holidays throughout most of the 17th century which was for the purpose of praising God for the blessings of that year.

Evidence indicates that our great nation continued to celebrate this holiday as a day of fasting and prayer for over 200 years, although there was a period of many years in the 1800s in which it was not recognized. After the Revolutionary War, George Washington called upon the nation to celebrate a national thanksgiving in 1789 which was also a day of prayer and fasting in which he asked the country to thank God for their civil and religious liberty and unite in asking for pardon of national and personal sins. This holiday did not include feasting and revelry. The name of the modern day holiday we know as Thanksgiving was in effect fabricated by the proclamation that Lincoln issued in the middle of the Civi War as a way of uniting the divided country. His administration blended the sentimental myth of the Pilgrims and Indians sharing the harvest feast (which evidence indicates did take place but in a much simpler form than tradition indicates) with and the desired result of unity under God ( Thus, our modern day Thanksgiving was born. Interestingly, the Pilgrim and Wampanoag Indians were not associated with Thanksgiving until around 1900 (

I think the Pilgrims at Plymouth would be appalled with how we celebrate Thanksgiving today. Instead of fasting, we enlarge the definition of gluttony; instead of solemnly praying, we entertain ourselves with football. Not even the turkey we eat is probably true to the original thanksgiving - they probably ate geese and venison; sweet potatoes were also probably not on the menu. But, does that mean we scrap the whole idea of celebrating a traditional thanksgiving? Relax - I’m not asking you to throw away your grandmother’s sweet potato casserole, but I proposing some changes. I suggest as a way to honor the original pilgrims that we bring God back into the holiday. Here are some ideas I have for creating more of a focus on our Creator God who has blessed us abundantly:

  1. Maybe you don’t want to skip the turkey and all of its trimmings on Thanksgiving day, but you could consider fasting on a day leading up to Thanksgiving or maybe even the day before.  

  2. Consider teaching your children about the religious roots of our nation and why the Pilgrims or Separatists fled to the New World.  Most of the books we have for children mention the religious freedom for which they fled - see my list of recommended books here

  3. .  I personally do believe that Squanto was an instrument that God provided to keep the Pilgrims alive and help them survive in the new world.  I really like the Squanto books on my recommended list.  As you teach about the religious freedom for which they came to America for, talk about how the Pilgrims of Plymouth would have prayed to God on their religious thanksgiving and share how God answered with the sweet gift of rain.  Consider incorporating prayer into your Thanksgiving celebration with your children.  

  4. Spend some of your day as a family in prayer and thanksgiving.  Here are some prayer prompts you can use to involve your kids in this:

  5. Offer a time of silent confession before the thanksgiving meal.  

  6. Practice gratitude throughout the month of November. Here are several ideas at and

  7. Consider journaling in a gratefulness journal. Here is a free printable here for your kids:

  8. Share Five-Kernels of Thankfulness around the Thanksgiving Table. See this blog post for instructions ( ).

  9. Share or memorize Scripture that speaks to being thankful. Here are FREE coloring pages to assist in this activity:

  10. Use these prompts to have a thankfulness discussion around the Thanksgiving table. You can use the prompts here- or use the free printable here -

  11. Play the Thanksgiving Grateful Game with M and Ms - See instructions here ( ).

  12. Sing “If You’re Thankful and You Know it!” with preschoolers on Thanksgiving. See the lyrics here:

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