No, the Pilgrims did not invent Thanksgiving. They weren’t even the first Europeans to celebrate the holiday in the New World (Sorry, DT – it was the Spaniards) Thanksgiving is even older than Christianity.
“Thanksgiving” is the name we give to the ancient rite of the harvest festival.
A harvest festival is an annual celebration that occurs around the time of the main harvest of a given region. Given the differences in climate and crops around the world, harvest festivals can be found at various times at different places. Harvest festivals typically feature feasting, both family and public, with foods that are drawn from crops that come to maturity around the time of the festival. Ample food and freedom from the necessity to work in the fields are two central features of harvest festivals: eating, merriment, contests, music and romance are common features of harvest festivals around the world.
In North America, Canada and the US each have their own Thanksgiving celebrations in October and November.
In Britain, thanks have been given for successful harvests since pagan times. Harvest festival is traditionally held on the Sunday near or of the Harvest Moon. This is the full Moon that occurs closest to the autumn equinox (22 or 23 September). The celebrations on this day usually include singing hymns, praying, and decorating churches with baskets of fruit and food in the festival known as Harvest Festival, Harvest Home, Harvest Thanksgiving or Harvest Festival of Thanksgiving.
In British and English-Caribbean churches, chapels and schools, and some Canadian churches, people bring in produce from the garden, the allotment or farm. The food is often distributed among the poor and senior citizens of the local community, or used to raise funds for the church, or charity.
In the United States, many churches also bring in food from the garden or farm in order to celebrate the harvest. The festival is set for a specific day and has become a national holiday known as Thanksgiving which falls on the fourth Thursday in November. In both Canada and the United States, it has also become a national secular holiday with religious origins, but in Britain it is both a Church festival giving thanks to God for the harvest and a more secular festival remembered in schools.
Harvest festivals in Asia include the Chinese Mid-Autumn Festival (中秋節), one of the most widely spread harvest festivals in the world. In Iran Mehrgan was celebrated in an extravagant style at Persepolis. Not only was it the time for harvest, but it was also the time when the taxes were collected. Visitors from different parts of the Persian Empire brought gifts for the king all contributing to a lively festival. In India, Makar Sankranti, Thai Pongal, Uttarayana, Lohri, and Magh Bihu or Bhogali Bihu in January, Holi in February–March, Vaisakhi in April and Onam in August–September are a few important harvest festivals.
Our ancestors lived a lot closer to the edge than we do. Winter was a time of deprivation and starvation. It was especially tough on the old and the very young, and many didn’t survive until Spring. A successful harvest meant that nobody had to die from hunger this year. That’s worth celebrating.
So they harvested food, stored or preserved it as best they could, and ate like a football team at a Chinese buffet for a few days or weeks. Nowadays we worry about gaining weight during the holidays, but for our ancestors it was how they stored up fat for the winter.
Kinda puts things in perspective, don’t it?