How Thanksgiving Became All Dinner, No Worship

I have heard the question many times, and just yesterday yet another acquaintance asked it again: is Thanksgiving a religious or a secular holiday? I assume the question keeps arising because I am a religious studies professor who included a chapter about Thanksgiving in my recent book, America’s Favorite Holidays: Candid Histories. Of course the answer depends on how you define the terms and also on some history. I’d make three points.

First of all, it is clear that the American Thanksgiving has Puritan roots. This is ironic, because New England Puritans were the very people who opposed annual Christmas and Easter celebrations; they saw them as Catholic innovations and felt the Christian themes of those two celebrations should be raised on Sundays. The early Puritan days of thanksgiving were particular days, not something observed on the same day each year. A day of thanksgiving might be declared to thank God for a military victory, or good health following a wave of disease, or an especially bountiful harvest that saved people from starvation, and one year could include several days of thanksgiving while other years had none at all. Days of fasting and humiliation also might be declared, for circumstances such as droughts, fires, or military defeats. Days of thanksgiving often came on Thursdays, to ensure that they did not interfere with or replace Sunday observances.

America’s Favorite Holidays: Candid Histories
Bruce David Forbes
University of California Press
October 27, 2015

Over time, however, some Puritan colonies began to celebrate an annual thanksgiving in late November or early December, a belated harvest celebration or really an early winter observance. Some ministers opposed the annual fall event but it became popular nevertheless, eventually seen as a New England tradition. Oversimplified, the major activities of the day were a worship service in the morning and a bountiful dinner in the afternoon.

It grew to become a national holiday mainly because of two influences: the diffusion of New Englanders throughout the United States, and the tireless efforts of one remarkable and persistent magazine editor, Sarah Josepha Hale, also from New England. When New Englanders participated in the western expansion of settlements, they frequently campaigned to continue the thanksgiving tradition in their new locations. Hale became their most prominent national advocate, serving as the editor (she preferred “editress”) of Godey’s Ladies Book, the most widely read magazine of its time in the United States.

Described by one modern commentator as a combination of Oprah and Martha Stewart, Hale wrote annual editorials campaigning for a national Thanksgiving Day on the last Thursday of November. She also filled her magazine with heartwarming stories of Thanksgiving homecomings and dinners, and she wrote personal letters to five United States presidents and every single state governor every year. Over time a majority of states adopted annual Thanksgiving Days, and when Abraham Lincoln proclaimed the last Thursday in November 1863 as a national day of thanksgiving, many people assume Hale deserved much credit. That proclamation, not for a particular purpose but as a general thanksgiving, is considered the beginning of the modern annual American Thanksgiving.

Surprisingly, all of the decades-long Thanksgiving advocacy prior to Lincoln’s proclamation never included any mention of the 1621 Pilgrim and Indian story, the basis of so many Thanksgiving pageants in the 1900s. The holiday came first, and the mythic 1621 event became a focus only later.

However (secondly), as thanksgiving became national, the religious influences gradually diminished. If the early Puritan thanksgiving day consisted of worship and dinner, the modern American holiday is mostly a dinner, plus parades, football, various entertainments, and the growing shadow of Christmas shopping.

How did the church lose its central position? To paint it in very broad strokes, the shift began as far back as the time of the colonial Puritans, when younger generations continued both church attendance and family dinners but tilted the emphasis toward the dinner and family activities. Later, when New Englanders spread their enthusiasm for Thanksgiving to new regions, they shared the tradition with Americans who had not been raised with Puritan church backgrounds. These newcomers to Thanksgiving embraced the dinner, the family reunion, and associated amusements, but not so much the extra worship services.

Catholic leaders, very aware that Puritans had opposed all things Catholic, initially resisted any kind of observance of the Puritan holy day, although they eventually relented. By the late 1800s even Protestant worship services saw declining attendance, so much so that various churches held joint Thanksgiving services in order to draw decent-sized crowds. Today a number of Christian churches provide no worship service at all on Thanksgiving Eve or Day. Honoring it as a special time for families to get together, the churches are content to raise Thanksgiving themes on the Sunday before or after the holiday. It may seem surprising that there is not more outcry from some Christian groups about the diminished role of church services on Thanksgiving Day, but the explanation probably lies in the day’s family focus, a value emphasized by those very same groups.

In the place of Thanksgiving worship stepped other activities that now have their own long traditions. With a Thursday off work and then a long weekend, some filled the time with recreational sports of many kinds. After American football developed in the late 1800s, high schools and colleges found Thanksgiving Day and weekend to be an ideal time for conference championship games. Later, professional football took over Thanksgiving Day with a televised Detroit Lions game, adding a Dallas Cowboy game in 1970 and now a third game in the evenings. Rowdy crowds of drunken Thanksgiving revelers in earlier years eventually gave way to Thanksgiving parades sponsored by department stores, especially Macy’s. The appearance of Santa Claus at the end of all the parades indicated that they were not really about Thanksgiving at all but instead a kickoff for the Christmas shopping season. In the midst of it all, the Thanksgiving dinner and the family homecoming theme remained.

So, today, some Americans bemoan the loss of religious influence and want to use Thanksgiving as an occasion to call the nation back to its Puritan roots. Others argue that the day is about family reunions, gratitude, and bringing the nation together in understanding and tolerance, whatever their religion or lack thereof. This argument is partially an echo of other aspects of the “culture wars” between right and left in today’s American society.

Thirdly, I am curious how these issues might relate to discussions in recent decades about an American civil religion. Robert Bellah’s classic 1966 essay is now widely known, in which he argues that “there actually exists alongside of and rather clearly differentiated from the churches an elaborate and well-institutionalized civil religion in America.” He called it a civil religion because it has many of the forms common to other religions but is centered on the nation. “It has its own prophets and its own martyrs, its own sacred events and sacred places, its own solemn rituals and symbols.”

If this is the way to describe an American civil religion, it is easy to fill in examples: symbols (the American flag, the Liberty bell), sacred scriptures (the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution), pilgrimage sites and shrines (Washington, DC, Mount Vernon, Gettysburg), prophets (George Washington, Thomas Jefferson), martyrs (Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr.), and central shared beliefs (freedom, equality, a divine purpose for the nation). Over the years, scholars have debated this idea of an American civil religion. Is it actually a religion or is it just similar to a religion? Should more traditional religions like Judaism and Christianity see a national civil religion as a rival, or can they be combined? Good questions.

This relates to Thanksgiving because both Christianity and the United States have ritual calendars, and they are not necessarily the same. The Christian ritual calendar includes not only Christmas and Easter but also, for some denominations, days like Ash Wednesday, Pentecost, and Epiphany, and seasons like Lent and Advent. The American civil religion calendar includes Independence Day, Memorial Day, Columbus Day, and more. To which ritual calendar does Thanksgiving belong? Can it belong to both?

In light of this talk about an American civil religion, the question is not just about whether Thanksgiving is secular or religious. Even if it is religious, which religion?

Editorial note: Some of the content and wording of this essay is drawn from paragraphs in the Thanksgiving chapter of my recent book, America’s Favorite Holidays: Candid Histories, slightly reshaped and revised.