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Is Thanksgiving Pagan?

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There are many controversies surrounding the American holiday of Thanksgiving. From its racist and genocidal past, some find it hard to celebrate this holiday.

Thanksgiving is also controversial for some Christians because of its possible ties to certain pagan holidays. But do the similarities between two holidays make Thanksgiving pagan? Or do the similarities simply have to do with a common theme that is important to all humans?

Let’s consider Harvest Home or Harvest Church. This was, by many accounts, the true ancestor of the modern American Thanksgiving. This holiday was usually held around the time of the Autumnal equinox, when people would decorate the church with fruit and vegetables they had grown that year.

After the festival, those fruits and vegetables were donated to the poor. This was seen as a time to provide for the less fortunate, like widows, orphans, those who were stuck in their homes, and ministers.

More obviously pagan is the holiday of Mabon. While this holiday is traditionally observed in September, it has similar themes of self sacrifice and giving thanks for a good harvest.

The myth of the American First Thanksgiving, when boiled down to its essence, holds these exact same themes: The sacrifice coming from the Native Americans, the giving of thanks by the Puritans.

Some Christians believe that the similarities between Mabon, Harvest Home, and Thanksgiving mean that Thanksgiving must then be a pagan holiday. But there are many similarities present between all holidays. I can’t think of a single holiday that is unique to one culture and not present in any other. Can you?

There are other harvest festivals in other cultures. The idea of a holiday to give thanks for our blessings is an ancient one, and a universal one. Other harvest festivals include:

A cornucopia overflowing with produce

The Departure Of Min

The Egyptian festival of the departure of Min, who was an Egyptian god of fertility, virility, and reproduction. This ancient festival dates from the Predynastic period (c. 6000 to c. 3150 BCE).

Min, who is often represented as a man with an erect penis holding a flail, was also known as Khnum. As agriculture spread throughout Egypt, so did his prominence. Bountiful harvests were celebrated as a sign of male fertility.

At the beginning of the harvest season, Min’s image was removed from the temple and brought to the fields so that he might bless the harvest. The king would cut the first bit of grain to ceremonially symbolize his connection to the gods and divine right to be kind. It also symbolized his connection to the land and the people he ruled over.

The cut grain was them offered to the gods as a sacrifice. Naked games were then played, the most important game being the climbing of a huge pole.

Sukkot

Another harvest festival is Sukkot, which is a festival in Judaism. This holiday begins 5 days after Yom Kippur and is also known as hag ha-asif.

This is a week long celebration wherein Jews stay in booths or huts, and is one of three great pilgrimage festivals int he Jewish year.

The holiday revolves around rejoicing and thanking God for a completed harvest. Through the enforced simplicity of eating and staying in temporary shelter, we see another representation of sacrifice.

Mid-Autumn Festival

In China, there is a Mid-Autumn festival to celebrate the harvest. The festival is held on the 15th day of the 8th month of the lunar calendar with a full moon at night, corresponding to mid September to early October of the Gregorian calendar.

During this festival, mooncakes are eaten and the moon is worshiped. The ancient Chinese believed that the moon was tied to rejuvenation. This festival also celebrates family reunions.

Principally, Chang’e is given reverence on this holiday. Incense is burned for this deity, a goddess of the moon.

A delicious looking thanksgiving dinner with turkey

The Cornucopia

One of the ubiquitous images of Thanksgiving is the cornucopia. What you may not know is that this image has ancient origins, stemming as far back as Greek and Roman mythology!

In fact, one popular myth surrounding the creation of the cornucopia is related to the infancy of Zeus. When Zeus was a baby, he had to be hidden from his god-eating father, lest he also be eaten.

While he was hidden in Crete, he was cared for by divine attendents. One such attendant was a goat, Amalthea. Zeus drank Amalthea’s milk, but didn’t have control over his godly strength and accidentally broke off the goat’s horn.

This horn was known to give unending nourishment, just as Amathea did.

Sarah Hale, The Mother Of Thanksgiving

But what of American Thanksgiving? Surely this was based on a real event, and not a myth, right?

Sarah Hale, a prominent writer that wrote Mary Had A Little Lamb, actually is due much of the credit for Abraham Lincoln’s Thanksgiving Proclamation.

Hale published a novel called “Northwood: A Tale of New England”. An entire chapter was dedicated to Thanksgiving, a tradition that was already popular in some parts of America.

Sarah Hale seemed to be a fan of the holiday, as she had lobbied state and federal officials to pass legislation turning Thanksgiving into a national holiday. She believed this might help to ease the growing tensions between the North and South in America.

While she did eventually get her national holiday, much of what we believe about Thanksgiving is actually based on lies and myths.

For instance, the Pilgrims didn’t actually hold the first American Thanksgiving. Both Texas and Virginia had harvest festivals of thanks years before the Pilgrims did.

A man caressing golden wheat on a sunny day

So Is Thanksgiving A Pagan Holiday?

As we are coming up to Yule, there is something you will see me saying very often in my blog posts.

Similarities between holidays does not indicate that a holiday was stolen from another culture. It doesn’t even necessarily mean it was influenced by another culture.

Most holidays in the western world revolve around the natural occurrences during the year. The wheel of the year may seem very pagan at first glance, but any people sufficiently tied to the land would think to give thanks for a bountiful harvest before winter set in.

So is Thanksgiving a pagan holiday? No, not really. There are a number of similarities, and probably influences from other cultures in how we celebrate Thanksgiving, but that doesn’t change the fact that modern American Thanksgiving was created by Christians and has Christianity embedded into it.

As pagans, we can definitely find easy ways to celebrate Thanksgiving by giving thanks to the Sun god of our choice. But I don’t think there’s any reason to go out trolling Christians by calling this holiday pagan.

If you’re looking for a pagan Thanksgiving ritual, try this one!

Let’s all give thanks this season for the good things that came to us this year. Whether you are pagan, Christian, or an atheist, we all have something to be thankful for. Don’t let the cultural past or present of this holiday hold you back from showing your thanks!

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