What Does Thanksgiving Really Mean?

Much like Christmas, Thanksgiving has come to be associated with many things that are a little different than the true meaning of the holiday. For many people, Thanksgiving now means shopping at midnight on Black Friday, falling asleep in front of a football game, watching the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade or the National Dog Show, or simply eating as much as humanly possible before passing out in a prone position because they are so full that they can’t make it up the stairs. These new connections are simply products of cultural evolution — just like the “commercialization of Christmas — but they have inspired us to remember traditional Thanksgiving celebrations and explore the history of what is arguably the most delicious holiday of the year.

Thanksgiving in the United States has been celebrated annually on the fourth Thursday of November since 1941, when a joint resolution of Congress regarding the holiday was signed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Before that time, the holiday’s date was a little unclear. Between the eras of the Founding Fathers and President Abraham Lincoln, Thanksgiving was celebrated at different times by different states. We can thank Sarah Josepha Hale for helping to standardize the holiday, because she spent most of her life petitioning government leaders to choose one day for Thanksgiving. Abraham Lincoln made a presidential proclamation in 1863 and selected the last Thursday in November for the holiday. That change didn’t really go into effect until the 1870’s, however, because the Southern states refused to recognize Lincoln’s decision (among others) until Reconstruction.

Traditionally, Thanksgiving has been a time to reflect upon the past year and the blessings we received. Although the holiday is often celebrated in a secular fashion, it is customary to say a prayer of thanks or have everyone in attendance share something for which they are thankful.  This practice stemmed from the early American celebrations of the 1600’s, which were inspired by English harvest celebrations, which had roots in the Protestant Reformation of the 1500’s. Prior to the English Reformation, there were a large number of “thanksgiving” holidays on the Catholic calendar. The Puritans reduced that number dramatically and instead celebrated days of thanksgiving only when they received special blessings. These Puritan Days of Thanksgiving traveled across the Atlantic with the Pilgrims and evolved into what we know as the First Thanksgiving. The accounts of this first holiday are unclear, and the Thanksgivings between Plymouth Rock and the Founding Fathers are sort of jumbled (many thanksgiving proclamations were issued by church and state leaders until the revolutionary period and the establishment of the first President of the United States).

In addition to the modern-day activities we have come to associate with Thanksgiving, we encourage you to remember the true spirit of Thanksgiving and the origins of the holiday. This country’s founding fathers chose to celebrate what they saw as blessings from God, which acted as the foundation for today’s Thanksgiving celebrations. This holiday is a wonderful opportunity to reflect on the past year and all of life’s blessings that have come your way since the last Thanksgiving.

Happy Thanksgiving!

About the Author

Karen Seal is a guest contributor from Drawing Near to God, a Catholic ministry that strives to inspire people to seek a closer relationship with God. Visit their website for daily devotionals, bible studies, and more.