Our Thanksgiving Harvest Festival

“And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying,  ‘Speak to the people of Israel, saying, On the fifteenth day of this seventh month and for seven days is the Feast of Booths to the Lord. On the first day shall be a holy convocation; you shall not do any ordinary work.  For seven days you shall present food offerings to the Lord. On the eighth day you shall hold a holy convocation and present a food offering to the Lord. It is a solemn assembly; you shall not do any ordinary work.’ ” Leviticus 23:33-36.

The first Thanksgiving was celebrated in 1621 over a three day harvest festival. It included 50 Pilgrims and 90 Wampanoag Indians. Venison, duck, goose, oysters, lobster, eel, and fish were likely served, alongside pumpkins and cranberries. The Pilgrims had come to America on the Mayflower in a 65 day ordeal in 1620 and there followed a harsh New England winter where about half of them died. Their Thanksgiving celebration that Fall, after a good harvest and after all of their tribulation, much have been especially heartfelt.

Some historians think the pilgrims’ Thanksgiving celebration is linked to the holiday of Sukkot, also called the Feast of Tabernacles or Booths described in Leviticus 23:33-36. Linda Burghardt, author of “Jewish Holiday Traditions” said, “Sukkot is considered a model for Thanksgiving. Both holidays revolve around showing gratitude for a bountiful harvest.” A pilgrimage to Jerusalem was involved in Sukkot where the Israelites lived for a week in temporary huts while giving thanks for a plentiful harvest. Likewise, during their first year, the Pilgrims lived in makeshift huts and wigwams. Sukkot lasted seven days and the first Thanksgiving was multiple days as well. Both were harvest festivals. With its pumpkin pies, cranberry garlands, casseroles stuffed with vegetables and fruit and pastries filled with apples, nuts, pumpkins and squash Thanksgiving mirrors many of Sukkot’s customs and culinary themes.

It is unclear if the Pilgrims’ Thanksgiving celebration was influenced by Sukkot. However, they certainly knew that Sukkot was the Jewish harvest festival and it could have well influenced the Thanksgiving celebration. They compared their voyage across the Atlantic to the Children of Israel crossing the Red Sea and they viewed the tribulations and hardships of their first years in their new land as similar to the time the Israelites spent wandering through the desert.

During this Thanksgiving season we should have the same gratitude as the Pilgrims for the abundance God has given our country, not the least of which is the spiritual abundance we have in a country in which we are still free to worship our God. We all are inheritors of the material and spiritual bounty that the first Pilgrims came to our country to obtain and we should be always grateful.

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