November 19, 2017
Is Thanksgiving a religious holiday?
This question is like the question of whether Christmas is a religious or cultural holiday (at this point, it is, realistically, both (though I am willing to reclaim it for the church alone at anytime.)) Thanksgiving, like Christmas in the early Church, grew from cultural, national, and religious forces that came into play in an epoch of history, in its case—the Reformation.
The best answer, I can give at this moment, is that Thanksgiving is a national holiday which has a conventional core of Protestant Reformation theology. Conventional, as opposed to traditional, because much of the spirit of thanking the "creator," for the gifts of the earth has been superseded by our very real expectations that the abundance has to do with our competency at agriculture and environmental control and not wonder at God's power and creativity. And because we expect this abundance year in and year out. There was wonder back in the days of famine and agricultural uncertainty.
During the Reformation, the reforming churches of England (including Non-conformists, Puritans, and Anglicans), France, (Huguenots), Germany, and Scandinavia (Lutherans in both places), and non-magisterial traditions like the Anabaptists, all radically reduced the feasting traditions of the Roman Catholic Church. The Puritans, led by Oliver Cromwell, the Great Protector, even eliminated celebrations of Easter and Christmas as feast days (both feasts returned in spades after Cromwell's death, although the Puritans continued not marking these days as feasts even with the return of the monarchy). But as early as the Church of England under Henry VIII, there was a movement to thank God for the gifts of the earth, especially around the fall harvest and on weekdays.
This tradition was transferred to the colonies in America, first in Virginia, well documented in 1619, and Massachusetts, less well documented in 1621. Both celebrations, with an obvious emphasis on the Massachusetts Bay Colony, serve as models for what has become our national celebration. It took until 1942 before the current celebration on the fourth Thursday of November was fixed by law.
The cultural connection between national life and religious practice is confirmed by the fact that our current Collect for Thanksgiving comes from the Prayer Book of England in 1604, and was part of the Prayer Book of England of 1662, when the Monarchy replaced the Protectorate once again. That Prayer Book is still the official Prayer Book of England, their updates come in the form of supplements which are available but not published in prayer book form.
The connection between our Nation and our Religion is evidenced by our other National Holiday remembered in the Collects and Propers of the BCP 1979, that is Independence Day. Sometimes the national and our faith interests overlap. Be certain to join with us in giving thanks in the spirit of faithful people for many generations on November 23 at 10 AM in the church.
The Rev. David Lucey