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Is There A Pagan Thanksgiving?
"Don’t judge each day by the harvest you reap but by the seeds that you plant." - Robert Louis Stevenson
Thanksgiving has always been one of my favorite holidays! It’s not because of the great feast, nor because it is a time to give thanks (an area I often fail to do adequately). To me, Thanksgiving is a day of rest and family time.
When I was little, Thanksgiving was the next best thing to Christmas. I was up early enough to eat my breakfast while watching Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade in New York City. I might have done other things after breakfast, but I never strayed from the television and the parade.
Then around noon, it was off to my aunt’s house for Thanksgiving dinner and family time (actually, it was my great aunt). This was the proceedings of Thanksgiving Day for many years. I quite enjoyed it.
My aunt was a cross between a boisterously funny aunt and a loving grandmother. So any time spent at her house was always enjoyable. For a little kid, it was quite literally an arcade. My uncle was in the video game machine business. And I don’t mean Wii, X-Box, or the like. His video games were those big standalone video games. Even though he kindly brought what he thought was the best game into the house from the cold garage for me, I was happy to play in the cold garage.
It was a time to see my older cousins and extended family. Thanksgiving football always brings back the echoes of my uncle yelling at the television during the Dallas Cowboys game. He liked Dallas and always had a wager on the game.
As I got into my teens, I would sleep through the parade and barely wake up in time to go to my aunt’s house. There was a string of years in my teens when I went to my aunt’s for Thanksgiving, equipped with headphones and things to do because my somewhat obnoxious teen self could not be bothered with all these annoying relatives. Of course, now I regret missing out on that family interaction.
When my aunt passed, as well as other usual Thanksgiving attendees, my mother took over cooking for and hosting Thanksgiving. Although not the same, it was still a special time. Now my wife and my inlaws were a welcomed part of our celebration.
After a while, we felt it was too much to ask my mother to host Thanksgiving. So, we took over hosting Thanksgiving, with my wonderful wife cooking dinner along with contributions from my mother. Once we started to have kids, it became even more convenient for us to play the host.
Now I enjoy a day of rest and family time! I still watch the Macy’s Parade if I can, but I sometimes get distracted by other things. However, the family usually watches the National Dog Show after the parade and before the guests arrive. I get a kick out of one of the television hosts, John O’Hurley. You may know him as J. Peterman from the sitcom “Seinfeld.”
Thanksgiving has become ingrained in our culture. Currently, there are numerous different views of Thanksgiving and possible historical and cultural issues surrounding it. I try to focus on the fact that Thanksgiving is a day of thanks. There are plenty of other days in the year to debate about it.
In my elementary school, a big deal was made out of Thanksgiving. I remember the “Big Thanksgiving Project,” culminating in a mini play of the first Thanksgiving. Half of us were pilgrims, and half were Native Americans.
We had to make our costumes out of paper grocery bags and construction paper. Teachers cut head holes and arm holes out of the paper bags, and then the kids decorated them accordingly with construction paper, crayons, etc. We also made hats out of construction paper. Does anybody out there in my age range remember this activity?
So this mini play we performed was based on a familiar story of the “First Thanksgiving” in Plymouth, MA. The Native Americans and the Pilgrims met after the harvest and had a three-day feast. Both sides got along swell with each other.
Then there is the derivation where the Pilgrims were starving, and the Native Americans came along and shared their food, creating a feast. There are also more negative tales, such as the Pilgrims killing the Native American and stealing their food.
We may never know what really happened in Plymouth between the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag Native Americans in 1621. However, depending on your definition of “Thanksgiving,” the first Thanksgiving in America was actually in 1619 in Virginia at what is now known as the Berkeley Plantation.
After landing at their destination on the James River, the settlers were obligated by their charter to have a religious celebration immediately. Their charter stated, “…that the day of our ship’s arrival at the place assigned for plantation in the land of Virginia shall be kept yearly and perpetually holy as a day of Thanksgiving to Almighty God.”
Quick Recommendation - Visit Berkeley Plantation at Harrison’s Landing if you can. There is lots of fascinating history there. I discovered it while researching my great, great grandfather’s service in the Irish Brigade, which was encamped there for a few months during the Civil War.
It should be noted that in our current times, Thanksgiving is not unique to the U.S. Thanksgiving or a similar version of it is celebrated in Canada, Brazil, Grenada, Liberia, Netherlands, Philippines, Rwanda, St. Lucia, Germany, Japan, and the U.K.
But what is Thanksgiving at its heart? In its most basic form, it seems to me to be a day to celebrate and give thanks for the harvest. Yes, we have associated other reflective and commercial aspects to it, but in effect is a harvest festival for crops we did not grow nor harvest. A big shout out to the farmers, food packagers, and shippers that make our Thanksgiving feasts possible.
Hmm, why does this sound familiar? Anybody?
If your answer is something to the effect of “Hey Mike, in your Samhain newsletter, you told us about pagan harvest festivals,” then you are correct!
Yes, all types of pagan groups have celebrated harvests with feasts and festivals for thousands of years before the first presidential pardon of a turkey.
One of our symbols of Thanksgiving is the cornucopia, symbolizing the plentifulness of the harvest. Interestingly, the Roman pagans also used the cornucopia in relation to their harvest festival celebrating their harvest goddess Ceres.
In addition to Samhain, the Celtic pagans also have the harvest festival of Lughnasadh (Aug 1st) to celebrate the season's first harvest.
Another similarity between Celtic harvest festivals and our Thanksgiving is the playing of sports and contests. We watch NFL football or have a pickup football game at a local park, while perhaps the ancient Celts had a hurling match. Hurling dates back to over 3,000 years ago.
Although our modern Thanksgiving has no roots or direct connection to the pagan harvest festivals, keep in mind that by celebrating Thanksgiving next week, you are perpetuating the tradition of giving thanks that goes far back in history.
Happy Thanksgiving to all who will be celebrating on Thursday!
It will be a few more days to a week before some content is posted on my YouTube channel. I demand that I do things correctly and do them well (or at least the best I can.) As such, I am delaying the content until I can properly edit and produce the footage. I underestimated how much is involved with video editing.
Similarly, my Podcast will be slightly delayed. Content should be published around the same time as the YouTube content.
Don’t Forget About My Upcoming Interviews…
Philip Carr-Gomm - December 6th
Philip was the Chosen Chief of the Order of Bards, Ovates, and Druids (OBOD) for 30+ years. In addition to his work with OBOD, Philip is also a psychotherapist, author, and teacher, among other things.
Paraic Donoghue - December 19th/20th
Paraic is a native Irish language speaker. He was raised on the Connemara Gaeltacht in County Galway, Ireland. Paraic is committed to the preservation and growth of the Irish language, along with the culture that is inextricably linked to it. He currently provides private Irish language lessons to students all over the world.
We will be discussing what it was like growing up and living on the Gaeltacht, his views on the Irish language and its importance, and the customs and traditions of his Gaeltacht that may have derived from the time of the Celts or earlier.
Both will be published on my YouTube channel and Podcast approximately one-week post-interview.
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Have a great weekend!
My name is Mike, and I am a skeptic and recovering accountant just starting to make my way through the world of the Druids, Celts, and Pagans.
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