Thanksgiving: Now And Then

Among many holidays observed annually in the United States, Thanksgiving has a special place due to its uniqueness to American culture and its emphasis on family.

In the US, Thanksgiving was declared an annual national holiday in 1863, however, its actual origin traces back to harvest festivals that were held by many ancient civilizations. The autumn festival, Thesmosphoria of the Greeks, the harvest festival, Cerelia of the Romans, the full moon harvest festival, Chung Ch’ui of the Chinese, Sukkoth of the Jews and the spring harvest festival of the ancient Egyptians are just some examples. Europeans also used to celebrate a good year at the end of the harvesting in fall, long before the establishment of colonial New England. Aside from the harvest festivals that are observed in many parts of the world, today’s Thanksgiving has roots in the Thanksgiving holidays of the English Puritans. In times of crisis or after a period of misfortune, Puritans would designate special days to thank God and to express gratitude for God’s blessings. These serious religious occasions were distinct from the harvest festivals and were not held regularly.

Puritans, or Separatists, were members of a religious movement that broke from the Church of England in the 16th century in order to reform the church and to establish a middle course between Roman Catholicism and the Protestant reformers’ ideas. In the early 17th century, a group of Separatists escaping religious persecution in England immigrated to America in 1620. After a difficult journey on the famous Mayflower, they reached the coast of America near present-day Provincetown, Massachusetts and founded the Plymouth Colony. Shortly after their arrival, the selected governor of the colony signed a treaty of mutual peace with the chief of the Native American tribe, the Wampanoag, so that they could co-exist in the region. Almost all of the immigrants, or Pilgrims, became ill, and half of them died due to the harsh winter and starvation. In the spring of 1621, the Native Americans taught them how to raise corn in this new land, how to catch fish and how to tap maple trees for their syrup. In the fall, the Pilgrims had an abundant harvest and stored enough food to sustain them through the next winter. They invited the members of the Wampanoag tribe to their celebration. Although this event is considered the first American Thanksgiving, there is no evidence that the Pilgrims thought of the feast as a thanksgiving. They were devoutly religious people and a day of thanksgiving would involve fasting and prayer.

Two years after the first American Thanksgiving celebration was held in 1621 in the Plymouth Colony, the Pilgrims observed a day of fasting and prayer due to drought. When the rains came during their prayers, the day turned into a Thanksgiving day. Gradually, they started to celebrate Thanksgiving after the harvest annually.

As the Thanksgiving celebrations in New England spread into other states, colonial governments designated Thanksgiving days to commemorate various public events. During the American Revolution, following the American victory at the Battle of Saratoga in 1777, the Continental Congress proclaimed a national day of Thanksgiving. Later on, in 1789, after the promulgation of the U.S. constitution, the President, George Washington, proclaimed another day of Thanksgiving.

New York State became the first state to observe Thanksgiving annually, with many others following. At this time, Thanksgiving celebrations were still not being held on the same day; generally they were held sometime in November. In 1863, President Abraham Lincoln appointed the last Thursday in November as Thanksgiving day. This took place during the American Civil War. When Congress established Thanksgiving as a national holiday after the war, Southerners saw Thanksgiving as a Northern custom imposed on them. However, in the late 19th century, Thanksgiving became a widespread national observance, as Thanksgiving’s emphasis on home and family appealed to all people throughout the United States. Later immigrants also appreciated Thanksgiving as a distinctly American holiday and saw it as an introduction to American values.

In the 20th century, as materialistic ideas dominated most value systems, Thanksgiving also took its share. The day following Thanksgiving was accepted as the start of the Christmas shopping season. Large retailers began to sponsor parades decorated richly with huge balloons to attract customers. Retail merchants even petitioned President Roosevelt in 1939 to change Thanksgiving day to one week earlier in order to allow for an extra week of shopping between Thanksgiving and Christmas. The change brought about great opposition from fellow Americans, as well as from opponents in Congress. In 1941, the president had to change the date back to the fourth Thursday of November.

Customarily, US presidents address the nation on Thanksgiving Day in an effort to gain public support for current government policies. It would be amiss not to mention football here as an American Thanksgiving tradition, as many people enjoy their evening watching the Rose Bowl.

Today’s Thanksgiving is about sharing food, family, friends and love. Family members come together at a table loaded with many tasty blessings from God. Classical Thanksgiving menus include turkey, mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, squash, cranberry sauce, and pumpkin pie, food that is plentiful during the harvest season. As more people immigrated to North America, they brought their traditional food to the Thanksgiving tables. Preparing and eating a large meal is a central part of Thanksgiving, in a way contrary to the spirit of the early Pilgrims, who fasted to express their thankfulness to God. The memory of the Pilgrims still survives though, in the parades of children dressed up in Pilgrim costume, with their tall hats or bonnets and shoes with large silver buckles and in the images of baskets overflowing with fruits and vegetables, that reminds one of the old autumn harvest celebrations. At the Thanksgiving table people usually express their thanks for their family, children, their good health and their well being. Children on the other hand are often not sure what to be thankful for, or they may just be thankful that there is no school on Thanksgiving Day.

Thanksgiving is not just a celebration once a year. It is an act that expresses our gratitude for any gift or blessing from God. Thanksgiving as a holiday may be seen as an American institution, but it is something that belongs to many cultures and religions.

Thanksgiving in Islam

In Islam, thanksgiving is the most important pillar of being a good worshipper and a beloved servant of God. Many verses in the Qur’an express the importance of thanksgiving. Remember Me then and I will remember you. Give thanks to Me and do not be ungrateful. (2:152). If you disbelieve, God does not need you, although He does not approve disbelief in His servants. However, if you give thanks, He will approve that in you. No sinning soul shall bear the burden of another. Then unto your Lord is your return and He will tell you what you used to do. He knows the secrets within the breasts. (39:7)

Many other verses emphasize that what the Creator requests most of His servants is thanksgiving. We have indeed created man from a mixed sperm to test him; and so We made him capable of hearing and sight. We have guided him upon the path, either as thankful or thankless. (76:2-3)

It was out of His mercy that He created the day and the night, so that you may rest in it and to seek some of His bounty, that perchance you may give thanks. (28:73)

Also in Sura al-Rahman (55), it is asked repeatedly: So, which of your Lord’s bounties do you deny? The bounties, such as fruits with different aromas and flavors, are invitations from God for thanksgiving. In this respect, thanksgiving is the appreciation of the providence coming from God, and respect for it. It is an expression of our acceptance of God as the Provider and Sustainer of our presence, rather than crediting our own efforts or mere chance. Thanksgiving is the connection of the worshipper with the name All-Merciful, one of the ninety nine beautiful names of God.

Signs of thanksgiving are contentment, thrift, consent and gratitude, while those of unthankfulness are greed, waste, ingratitude and consumption without discriminating between the lawful and unlawful. There are many kinds of thanksgiving, the most comprehensive of which is the daily prescribed prayers. As it is stated in a hadith;* The Prophet used to pray so much that his feet used to become edematous or swollen, and when he was asked as to why he prays so much, he would say, ˜Shall I not be a thankful servant (to God)?’

Thanksgiving can be an oral or physical act. Saying Al-hamdulillah (praise be to God) in response to a blessing we have appreciated is a kind of thanksgiving. Using our hands, eyes, time and wealth in accordance with God’s will is also thanksgiving. God had already given you victory at Badr, at a time when you were still powerless; so fear God that perchance you might be thankful. (3:123)

Other prophets were also ordered to be thankful for God’s blessings. give thanks, O family of David! And very few of My servants are grateful. (34:13) Indeed, Abraham was a model (of virtue), obedient to God and upright; and he was not one of the polytheists. (He was) thankful for His blessings, and God chose and guided him to a straight path. And We gave him good in this world, and he will be, in the Hereafter, in the ranks of the Righteous. (16:120-122)

Then he (Solomon) smiled, laughing at its words, and said: Lord, inspire me to be thankful for Your blessing, with which You have blessed me and my parents, and to do the right pleasing to You. Admit me, by Your Mercy, into the company of Your righteous servants. (27:19)

One can also realize the importance of thanksgiving from the supplications of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), who desired nothing more than to be a thankful servant of God.

Islamic teachings define human beings as the best of creation. Only through thanksgiving can people attain this highest of ranks, otherwise they will fall to the lowest of the low. In a sense, a Muslim should observe each day of his/her life as a thanksgiving day.


  • Microsoft Encarta Online Encyclopedia 2003
  • William Bradford by Dorothy Honiss Kelso,
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  • The Duty of Thanksgiving,
  • (*) Sahih Bukhari, Volume 8, Book 76, Number 478: Narrated by Al-Mughira bin Shu’ba

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