Thanksgiving: Sacred or Profane Feast

Lillian Sigal. Mythosphere. Volume 1, Issue 4. October 1999.

For many people, the thought of Thanksgiving may conjure up dyspepsia, too much food, and family dysfunction rather than sacred feasting. Nevertheless, food is the sustenance of life, and when eaten ceremonially with one’s family, friends, or community, it has the power to gratify both our physical and spiritual yearnings. Here I explore both the sacred and profane sources of our American Thanksgiving. I argue that Thanksgiving—its secular observances notwithstanding—persists as a sacred festival, for it satisfies our “ontological thirst” (Eliade 64), our archetypal human yearning for religio, that is, reconnection to a transcendent power and a locus of meaning in our lives.

Puritan, Biblical, and Canaanite Sources

The origins of our American Thanksgiving are very complex. Like a rhizome whose roots stretch both above and below the earth’s surface, the sources of Thanksgiving are visible in colonial history but are also buried in the ancient and prehistoric past. The holiday’s most obvious beginnings are in the so-called first Thanksgiving, celebrated by the Pilgrims in Plymouth, Massachusetts, in gratitude for their first successful harvest. However, the notion of a “first Thanksgiving” is essentially an oversimplification, in that the American holiday did not originate on one day, during one year, or in one place. Indeed, many regions of the United States aside from Plymouth—Boston, Maine, Virginia, Texas, and Florida—claim the distinction of having been its originator (Appelbaum 19).

In spite of its plural ancestry, an image of the Pilgrim colony established in 1620 generally takes form in our consciousness when we think of the first Thanksgiving. Undoubtedly, Newell Convers Wyeth’s The Thanksgiving Feast (1940-45) has contributed to etching that image in our minds. Wyeth depicts a group of Puritans and an Indian seated outdoors around a long table, at the head of which a patriarch stands holding a Bible. Serving the traditional roast turkey in this familiar scene is a Puritan woman. While most Americans probably could not name the artist, this work is arguably an American icon. In Wyeth’s depiction, the prominence of the Puritan elder with Bible in hand and the solemnity of the occasion reflect the sacred nature of the festival as it was observed historically and as it has been envisioned mythically.

The invisible roots of Thanksgiving, however, extend deeply into the soil of the Bible and of religions that long predate Christianity and Judaism. As a religious community that considered itself shaped and defined by the Bible, the Puritans probably found inspiration for their day of gratitude in the Israelite festival of Sukkoth (Tabernacles) (Freund 16). In the Bible, Sukkoth is listed as one of the three harvest festivals at which Israelites were bidden to make a pilgrimage to their sanctuary in Jerusalem. The other two—Pesach (Passover) and Shavuoth (Pentecost)—celebrate the early and late spring harvests, whereas Sukkoth marks the autumn ingathering.

The book of Exodus contains reference to Sukkoth as the Feast of Ingathering (hag haasif): “the Feast of Ingathering at the end of the year, when you gather in the results of your work from the field” (Exod. 23.16). In Leviticus, on the other hand, it is called the Feast of Tabernacles (hag ha’sukkot): “Mark, on the fifteenth day of the seventh month, when you have gathered in the yield of your land, you shall observe the festival of the Lord [to last] seven days. […] You shall live in booths seven days […] in order that future generations may know that I made the Israelite people live in booths when I brought them out of Egypt.” (Lev. 23.39-43).

Although the Bible associates Sukkoth with the sukkah, temporary dwellings inhabited by the wilderness-wandering Israelites, a more likely ancestor is the shelter that harvesters in ancient times built to protect themselves from the sun during the day and for rest at night. In an effort to distance the faith from celebrations of the harvest practiced by pagan fertility cults, the Torah historicized Sukkoth as a commemoration of the Exodus from Egypt, while retaining many of its agricultural features as a harvest thanksgiving (Sigal 351-52).

Like so many other sacred feasts ordained by scripture, Sukkoth was not conceived de nouveau but was derived from ancient pagan fertility celebrations. Hayyim Schauss suggests that the sukkah is derived from a Canaanite ritual drama at an autumn festival involving a banquet of the gods and erection of a sukkah for them (306-07, n. 240).

The Bible reinterpreted the earlier pagan practices and connected the sukkah to the redemptive Exodus event, thus changing its focus from nature to history and theology. However, it preserved the festival’s agricultural symbols, as prescribed in Leviticus: “On the first day [of Sukkoth] you shall take the product of hadar trees, branches of palm trees, boughs of leafy trees, and willows of the brook, and you shall rejoice before the Lord your God seven days” (Lev. 23.40). In their observance of Sukkoth, Jews traditionally gather these four plants into a sort of bouquet that is waved in four directions as well as up and down to symbolize the omnipresence of Yahweh. They also carry them in ceremonial procession within the synagogue.

The Puritans, having fled from persecution in England, closely identified with the ancient Israelites fleeing from the pharaoh and with the theme of redemption in the story of the Exodus. After a bitter year of deprivation and hunger in the New World and having finally been blessed with a successful harvest, they cast themselves as the New Israel in the new promised land observing a new redemptive thanksgiving festival. The affinities the Puritans felt with the chosen people of the Exodus are evident in the rhetoric of their sermons and documents. In The New England Mind: The Seventeenth Century, Perry Miller argues that the Puritans saw themselves as living in covenant with God, like Israel of old, a concept they also appropriated for political purposes:

The political-religious model for the Massachusetts commonwealth was Israel. Like the Hebrews, the Puritans were, as John Cotton saw it, in covenant with God. His laws were applicable to Massachusetts as to Israel, “because God, who was then bound up in covenant with them [the Hebrews] to be their God, hath put us in their stead and is become our God as well as theirs and hence we are as much bound to their laws as well as themselves.” (cited in Emerson 68)

Although the Puritans opposed the frivolity and licentiousness of seasonal agricultural festivals, they believed that daily events were evidence of God’s intervention, and hence successful or failed crops reflected God’s providence. Recognizing “the merciful hand of providence in the seasonally related agricultural work of planting, raising crops and harvesting, they declared fasts or days of Thanksgiving” (Freund 23). As heirs of the Yahwistic covenant, they also may have found religious sanction for joyful feasting in the model of Sukkoth. For, during the seven days of the feast, the Israelite was enjoined to “rejoice in the presence of Yahweh” (Lev. 23.40). Accordingly, the Plymouth settlers held a three-day communal feast in which not only were prayers recited but games and competitions took place. In colonial times, when Thanksgiving became an annual observance, it began with morning worship followed by a family feast.

British and Roman Sources

In addition to its colonial, Biblical, and Canaanite predecessors, another source for our Thanksgiving is the British Harvest Home festival and its pagan forebears. The Harvest Home (also known as the Feast of Ingathering) combined Celtic and Saxon customs associated with “Merry England,” traditions that were largely pagan survivals. Because of these heathen elements, the Puritans eschewed the Harvest Home. The vacuum that was left was filled by the more acceptable Thanksgiving festival associated with the Biblical Sukkoth. Harvest Home folk observances included the Harvest Doll, harvest meals, and dances. The Harvest Queen was crowned with flowers and carried a sheaf of corn under one arm and a sickle in the other. The figure was placed in the fields while the reapers were laboring, and was brought home with music and joyous acclamation on the last evening of reaping. William C. Hazlitt argues for a Roman derivation of the Harvest Home. He implies that the harvest figure paraded through the fields in the Harvest Home is an appropriation of the Roman goddess Ceres, who took over the myth of the Greek earth goddess Demeter (308).

Not only did the Romans share with the Celts an agricultural heritage that includes a feast at the end of the autumn harvest, but “Christian worship centered about the Eucharist [and] late Roman paganism was concerned with companionship within the group and the common sacred meal” (Hennig 219). In the process of Christianizing the Romans, a blending of the pagans’ sacred common thanksgiving meal with the Christians’ Eucharist may have occurred. Indeed, we can see a conflation of the mass and harvest celebration in Lammas (Loaf Mass) Day, another ancestor of the contemporary Thanksgiving. The latter is a day when the church blessed first loaves made from the harvest wheat and offered them at mass (Cohen and Coffin 396).

The Secularization of Thanksgiving

As we peel away the layers of tradition that have formed the American Thanksgiving festival, we find merged ancient ceremonies and offerings—monotheistic and polytheistic—that retain archaic agricultural symbols and associations mainly religious in character. When, then, did Thanksgiving’s sacred nature begin to flag and succumb to secularism?

Hugo Freund submits that the Puritans in the seventeenth century were holistic in their worldview, and therefore did not distinguish between the sacred and profane. They believed that the sacred penetrated all of life (33). The secularization of Thanksgiving, Freund maintains, received its major impetus from the industrial revolution in the nineteenth century (55). Prior to the nineteenth century, “early American families were perceived as coterminous with other social units such as church and government” (73).

The industrial revolution, according to Freund, brought about a shift in values, and the home became a refuge from the industrial world. While the home became a haven for religious morals, the focus of Thanksgiving became the family. The Victorian cult of domesticity and middle-class abundance characterized the Thanksgiving observances of that century. In time, Thanksgiving was proclaimed a regional holiday by local and state governments. These proclamations became more secular and less associated with the Puritan belief in Providence. As the United States developed a stronger national identity, Thanksgiving became a national civic holiday. It was established as an annual observance by Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War.

Rather than the harvest ingathering, the emerging American middle class began emphasizing the family ingathering aspect of Thanksgiving, as well as its attendant gratuitous displays of food. Norman Rockwell’s well-known 1943 painting Freedom from Want portrays a comfortable middle-class family seated around a table, being served a huge, succulent roast turkey. It epitomizes the modern observance of the holiday. Rockwell’s painting bears no outward religious symbols, such as those in Wyeth’s drawing of The First Thanksgiving. It portrays Thanksgiving as a celebration of family union, or reunion, and as an occasionn to acknowledge material abundance. In fact, Freedom from Want, painted during World War II, was not very popular overseas. Europeans disliked it because it did not depict refuge from hunger but rather overabundance and excessive self-indulgence (Rockwell 315).

One of four paintings in Rockwell’s famous Four Freedoms series, Freedom from Want was extremely well received in the United States. When the series appeared in the Saturday Evening Post, there were requests for millions of reprints. Subsequently, the U.S. Department of the Treasury distributed additional millions to further its War Bond drive.

More than seventy thousand were moved to write Rockwell and tell him how inspirational the series of prints was (Walton 162). Recycled later as poster reproductions by the government to boost patriotic morale during the war, however, their inspiration seems to have been largely secular. Rockwell’s painting reflects the secularization of Thanksgiving due not only to emerging middle-class affluence but also to nascent national self-identity. Rockwell wanted to “get across an inspirational message in pictorial form, just as President Roosevelt and Winston Churchill had tried in verbal form” (Walton 162).

Another factor that facilitated the transformation of Thanksgiving from a primarily religious to a more secular holiday was the impact of urbanization. The movement of populations away from farms—increasing the individual’s alienation from nature—contributed to the desacralization of the harvest season. Moreover, scientific positivism, Darwinism, and the Death of God played a profound role in the secularization of modern society as a whole. British poet William Wordsworth’s poetry expressed the zeitgeist of secular modernity—its materialism, its cold rationalism, and its loss of a sense of awe in the presence of nature. Although the opening lines from his famous sonnet do not allude to Thanksgiving, they capture the spirit of the new era that began to empty the festival of its sacrality: “The world is too much with us; late and soon, /Getting and spending we lay waste our powers: / Little we see in Nature that is ours” (292).

Foreshadowed in Wordsworth’s words concerning “getting and spending” is another of the festival’s profane features that is particularly pervasive in the twentieth century, considering the frenetic shopping that takes place on the day after Thanksgiving. In some quarters that day has been named by retailers Black Friday because of the crushing crowds in the stores. Additionally, the consumerism of Thanksgiving is exacerbated by parades that welcome Santa Claus to town in order to kick off the Christmas shopping season. The Black Friday phenomenon appears to be a product of modern capitalism and of consumers’ penchant to “shop till they drop.”

Watching televised football games is another secular ritual of our contemporary Thanksgiving holiday. Unlike the ancient Greek Olympics, these games have no visible religious ties. Nor are they, like the Thanksgiving contests of the Puritans, merely elements added to a fundamentally religious observance. The commercialism of Black Friday and popular athletic games that seem to be modern secular accretions to the festival, then, have their counterparts in older religious observances of the harvest holiday, in which the sacred and the profane were closely intertwined.


According to Mircea Eliade, the person who lived in traditional society was a homo religiosus, who believed that the sacred transcends this world but also manifests itself in it. The notion of a wholly desacralized world, Eliade maintains, is a recent discovery in human history. He argues that modern science, in its effort to fight the superstition of the past, demystified and desacralized human existence and the natural world. In our account of the transition from a more religious to a more secular observance we have an example of just such a process.

Despite the dramatic shift in worldview introduced by modernity, many Americans continue to observe Thanksgiving as a religious festival, not only in their homes, with prayers and blessings around the table, but also in ecumenical communal services that reflect the religious diversity of America today.

What about the nonreligious who celebrate Thanksgiving? In response to this question, I offer the following statement by Eliade: “Even the most desacralized existence still preserves traces of a religious valorization of the world” (23). Religious symbols are active even after they appear to lose earlier meanings. “A religious symbol conveys its message even if it no longer is consciously understood in every part. For a symbol speaks to the whole human being and not only to the intelligence” (129). This idea is certainly applicable to the Thanksgiving feast.

When we celebrate Thanksgiving, we consciously or unconsciously link ourselves to a sacred mythic time when we may sense that our forebears, innocent and uncorrupted, were led providentially to these shores, lived in harmony with and joined their Indian neighbors in a celebration of gratitude to God for the life-sustaining food of the harvest. The customary foods—turkey, stuffing, cranberry sauce, and pumpkin pie—have become symbols that evoke nostalgia for our folk history, not totally different from the nostalgia the Israelites experienced at Sukkoth as they recalled the time when Israel was God’s undefiled, faithful young bride that followed Him in the wilderness—the time when they sojourned in booths en route to the promised land.

I agree that in appropriating images of eating and drinking the religious person demonstrates an unquenchable ontological thirst, a thirst to exist in a divine world. Whereas the physiological act of eating, for modern consciousness, is only an organic phenomenon, “it is, or can become, a sacrament, that is, a communion with the sacred” (Eliade 14).

Hennig Cohen and Tristram P. Coffin suggest that Thanksgiving is “a kind of secular, nationalistic ‘mass'” (414). Indeed, the feast is a kind of communion meal, albeit one devoid of overt religiosity for many of its participants. The festival gratifies many secularists’ yearning for renewal of family ties, which may be surrogates for ties to a transpersonal power.

On some level, Thanksgiving satisfies an archetypal idea: humans are engaged in a universal quest for relationship with a transcendent immanent pattern of meaning in our lives. C. G. Jung indicates that human beings are deeply influenced by these archetypes that lie deep in our unconscious: “[A]rchetypal ideas are part of the indestructible foundations of the human mind. However long they are forgotten and buried, always they return, […] representing the timeless truths that are innate in human nature” (130).

As we partake of the Thanksgiving meal, we participate in a harvest feast that resonates not only with echoes of the American colonial past but also with more distant observances in England, the Middle East, and, indeed, all over the world. All premodern traditions believed in what Eliade calls “sacred time.” Modernity produced the new condition of secularism that began to empty Thanksgiving of its sacrality. Yet, even for Americans who do not intentionally observe it as a sacred holiday, Thanksgiving is not entirely profane. Its symbolism endures. “History cannot basically modify the structure of an archaic symbolism. History constantly adds new meanings, but they do not destroy the structure of the symbol” (Eliade 137).

Thanksgiving’s symbolism persists because, like Franz Kafka’s protagonist in “The Hunger Artist,” human beings hunger for spiritual meaning in their lives. The hunger artist starves himself for lack of meaningful food. Others may respond to their ontological hunger—especially at their Thanksgiving banquet—by stuffing themselves like the proverbial bird in order to fill, as it were, the God-shaped void within.