What Is Thanksgiving Really About? (HINT: There’s More Than You Think)

Meg Bucher

Americans celebrate the national holiday of Thanksgiving each year on the fourth Thursday of November. Traditionally, a meal of turkey, stuffing, potatoes, cranberry sauce, and pumpkin pie is served to friends and family. Elementary school projects don the average American refrigerator to commemorate the Pilgrims of the English colonies and the Native Americans who called our land home before the settlers arrived. Thanksgiving is the biggest traveling holiday; it celebrates the harvest and other blessings of the past year. Though there is some speculation as to whether the traditional Thanksgiving in Plymouth was actually the first, “The holiday associated with Pilgrims and Native Americans has come to symbolize intercultural peace, American’s opportunity for newcomers, and the sanctity of home and family.”

What Is the History and Origin of Thanksgiving?

The history of Thanksgiving spans hundreds of years and has evolved over time in American culture. The harvest of 1621 yielded a feast shared by the English colonists (Pilgrims) of Plymouth and the Wampanoag people, creating a treaty of peace between the two cultures that lasted for over fifty years. In 1789, George Washington issued the first Thanksgiving proclamation by the US government, and in 1798 the US Congress legislated that each state determines their own Thanksgiving celebration. On October 3, 1863, President Lincoln proclaimed a national day of Thanksgiving to be celebrated on November 26th, and in 1871 New York became the first state to adopt the national holiday of Thanksgiving. The first Macy’s Day Parade rolled down the streets of NYC in 1924, a tradition started by Gimel’s department store in 1920. In 1942, President Roosevelt designated Thanksgiving Day to be celebrated on the fourth Thursday in November.

Is Thanksgiving a Christian Holiday?

The idea of Thanksgiving originated with the English colonists, who commonly celebrated days of prayer thanking God for blessings, but the holiday is not nationally recognized as religious or Christian per se. The marked influence of the Christian faith across the great history of our nation is significant and undeniable, beginning with those colonists who fled their country in search of religious freedom. In the United States today, all people groups have the freedom to celebrate gratitude on Thanksgiving Day. For Christians, it absolutely means honoring the tradition of gratitude to God. 

1 Thessalonians 5:18  says, “Give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.”

We are thankful for life, God’s faithful provision, the people in our lives, the time we have on earth to enjoy His beautiful creation, and the hope of what is to come in the future for believers when Jesus returns. “God created humanity for gratitude,” writes David Mathis in “The True Story of Thanksgiving,” “You exist to appreciate God.

To help you in thanking God, we created a 30 Days of Gratitude Prayer Guide HERE. Download and print this guide to keep with you as a reminder of God's love and promises.

Historical Significance of Thanksgiving over the Years

Sadly, the original Thanksgiving marked one of the only times of peace shared by those coming to settle in America and the Native American population who had already made a home here. Groups of Native Americans still protest annually in remembrance of the horrific sufferings of their people at the hands of incoming settlers. During the first Thanksgiving proclamation in 1789, reports, George Washington “called upon Americans to express their gratitude for the happy conclusion to the country’s war of independence and the successful ratification of the U.S. Constitution.” Thanksgiving calls an important reminder to the hearts of Americans to be grateful for our freedom. 

Many battles were fought and lives given for the land which produces the annual harvest we celebrate. Though political debate often threatens to steal our peace, Americans genuinely want to keep making the country better. For the most part, we are thankful, helpful, and brave people who are not afraid to fight for what’s right. Those sentiments come from a Christian foundation. Thanksgiving bids us an opportunity to stand together each year in remembrance of all we’ve been able to accomplish, though we still have much to do.

At the height of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln’s proclamation included: “entreating all Americans to ask God to ‘commend to his tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners, or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife’ and to ‘heal the wounds of the nation.’” Beyond being thankful for all that we have, many choose to give to those in need by volunteering their time to serve meals at shelters, churches, and community centers. In almost every city and state in America, a charitable event or cause takes place on or around Thanksgiving for those who are struggling to find food to eat. Still more revolve around visiting those who are shut-in and alone at home, in hospitals, and nursing homes.  

Thanksgiving is one of the busiest travel days of the year, with families taking the time to reunite for fellowship. With the urban nature of much of our country, family members don't always live close; Thanksgiving provides a holiday where family and friends can come together. Thankfulness for the people in our lives is a big part of the Thanksgiving tradition.  

Why Do We Still Celebrate Thanksgiving?

“It is a good thing to give thanks unto the Lord. Across the uncertain ways of space and time our hearts echo those words, for the days are with us again when, at the gathering of the harvest, we solemnly express our dependence upon Almighty God.” - Franklin Roosevelt 

The attitude of gratitude is actually good for the soul; “Studies who that people can deliberately cultivate gratitude by literally counting their blessings and writing letters of thanks, for example,” notes Psychology Today, “This proactive acknowledgment can increase well-being, health, and happiness.” Biblically, gratitude is part of God’s design. We’re made to honor Him and told to “give thanks in all circumstances” (1 Thessalonians 5:18). God's will gives us the freedom to respond to His grace, by the power of the Holy Spirit we can be truly grateful for what God has done and is continuing to do in our lives. “Being grateful," continues, “and especially the expression of it - is also associated with increased energy, optimism, and empathy.” 

Thanksgiving has become more well known in later centuries, but the idea of it was celebrated in ancient times. “Egyptians, Greeks and Romans feasted and paid tribute to their gods after the fall harvest,” cites, “Native Americans had a rich tradition of commemorating the fall harvest with feasting and merrymaking long before Europeans set foot on their shores.” Before we were all connected through modern-day communication, most people groups and cultures were drawn to giving thanks.

Do Other Countries Have a Version of Thanksgiving?

Multiple countries around the world celebrate Thanksgiving, or a harvest-time holiday similar to it. Here are just some of the many different ethnic and cultural celebrations. Canada celebrates Jour de l’Action de Grace, on the second Monday in October; Israel celebrates the religious holiday of Sukkot (Feast of Booths or Feast of Tabernacles) between late Sept/Oct; and Korea celebrates a three-day harvest festival named Chuseok the 15th day of the 8th month of the lunar calendar, in remembrance of hometown ancestral traditions. 

Vietnam celebrates the  Children’s Festival in September/October, London’s Harvest Festival is annually observed in October, and Ghana remembers a historic famine with the Homowo Festival. Germany’s Erntedankfest (The Harvest of Thanks) occurs the first Sunday in October, The August Moon Festival in China has been celebrated for 1,000 years, and in India, the sun god Surya is worshipped during the four day Pongal festival. The Crop Over is celebrated in Barbados from June to August, similar to Carnival in Brazil and Trinidad. Grenada’s Thanksgiving, held on October 25th, is modeled after the United States celebration, and in honor of when the US military came to their aid in 1983. The Netherlands remembers Thanksgiving by a non-denominational church service on the 4th Thursday of November.

What Is Friendsgiving?

The Urban Dictionary defines Friendsgiving as a celebration of Thanksgiving dinner with your friends. The term was started in Twittersphere in the last decade or so, but it was made popular by the iconic TV series, Friends. Many Americans living far from family choose to celebrate the holiday with nearby friends or friend’s families. Others celebrate Friendsgiving on the Wednesday before or the Friday after Thanksgiving Day, before or after visiting family to formally celebrate the holiday. “There isn’t a strict set of guidelines,” writes Black Bakkila of, “Friendsgiving is a totally customizable modern tradition.” 

10 Thanksgiving Facts

1. The colonists began the first Thanksgiving by going out “fowling,” for ducks, geese, and turkeys.

2. The Wampanoag brought fowl, fish, eels, shellfish, stews, vegetables, and beer to the feast.

3. Each year, the President of the United States “pardons” a turkey, sending it off to a farm for retirement.

4. Sarah Josepha Hale, the editor of a popular magazine campaigned for 36 years for a national Thanksgiving Day to promote unity and won the support of President Lincoln.

5. The first Thanksgiving Day football game was Yale vs Princeton in 1876.

6. Huge balloons made their debut at the Macy’s parade in 1927.

7. 40% of the adults on the Mayflower came from the Netherlands.

8. According to the National Turkey Foundation, 90% of Americans eat turkey on Thanksgiving.

9. No pie? Because the Pilgrims didn’t have ovens to bake, the first Thanksgiving menu did not feature pies or cakes.

10. During the Great Depression, President Roosevelt moved the holiday up a week in an attempt to spur retail sales. 

A Thanksgiving Prayer


On Thanksgiving Day and every day, let our hearts be filled to the brim with gratitude for all we’ve been blessed with on this earth. Whether we can tangibly count them or not, You remain a constant and loving Father. In times of pain and lack, we can be fully filled with the joy of Your love. Today, we pray for those enduring hardship, and through all of the giving souls in the world, pray their physical needs can be met, today, Father: that the hungry are fed, the lonely visited, and the homeless find shelter. Adjust our perspective to see how we can help those in our communities less fortunate than us. And for those of us who dwell under a roof and eat at a table with family, we thank You, and acknowledge that every good gift comes from You. Increase our generosity, Father. Propel us forward in love. Thank You for Jesus, and His sacrificial love for us.  

In Jesus’ Name, 


This Thanksgiving let us not forget, no matter where we are, the sun rises and sets on God’s sovereign time. His hand blesses us, provides for us, places us, sustains us, and shields us. Thanksgiving may be a holiday we commemorate, but it is a characteristic Our Heavenly Father built into the core of who we are called to be. 

Sources:, Thanksgiving Day, The History of Thanksgiving

Meg writes about everyday life within the love of Christ. She stepped out of her comfort zone, and her Marketing career, to obey God’s call to stay home and be “Mom” in 2011. From that step of obedience her blog, Sunny&80, was born, a way to retain the funny everyday moments of motherhood. Meg is also a freelance writer and author of “Friends with Everyone.”  She loves teaching God’s Word and leading Bible study, being a mom, distance running, photography, and the Cleveland Browns. Meg resides in Northern Ohio with her husband, two daughters, and Golden-Doodle.  

Photo credit: ©GettyImages/Jupiterimages

This article is part of our larger Thanksgiving Resource Library. Learn about the first Thanksgiving, what Thanksgiving means in the Bible, how to get along with your family, and ways you can make this celebration more meaningful.

25 Bible Verses About Being Gratitude and the Power of Thanksgiving
Thanksgiving Bible Verses
Examples of Thanksgiving in the Bible
Thank You God! 10 Prayers of Praise and Thanksgiving
How to "Give Thanks in All Things"

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