Thanksgiving's Origins: The FIRST Thanksgiving & How to Celebrate as a Pagan

Thanksgiving’s Pagan Origins & How to Celebrate As A Pagan

When we think of Thanksgiving the image that pops up is of pilgrims and Native Americans sitting at a table, feasting on turkey and pumpkin. But is this really Thanksgiving’s origins? Weren’t there other harvest and fall festivals before Thanksgiving? Let’s take a look at America’s past and examine the question “How did Thanksgiving originate” a little closer than the history books provide us. And we’ll talk about how to celebrate Thanksgiving as a pagan modern holiday.

How Did Thanksgiving Begin?

In answering the question how did Thanksgiving begin, the main theme of “Thanksgiving” is giving thanks for what we have. The idea of giving thanks for the earth’s bounty, for family, and all the earth’s provided originates with ancient harvest festivals. This type of celebration has been passed down by our ancestors for thousands of years. The pilgrims and Native Americans weren’t the only people to give thanks for the harvest. Many ancient (and modern) cultures around the world celebrate some sort of harvest festival. Here’s a few that may have influenced the modern American Thanksgiving.

2 Celtic Harvest Festivals: Ancient Gaelic Thanksgiving

At least two sabbats on the modern Wheel of the Year are traced back to Celtic harvest festivals. Lughnasadh, which means “Assembly of Lugh”, was the first harvest festival celebrated by the ancient Gaelic Celts. This harvest festival occurred annually around August 1st and marked the beginning of the harvest season. The men worked tirelessly since Beltane, planting and caring for the crops, to begin seeing their yield around the beginning of August. The women came down from the mountains, where they cared for the livestock in the Summer months, to aid in harvesting on Lughnasadh. In addition, feasts were had and celebrations ensued.

The second major harvest festival took place around November 1st annually and was called Samain (Samhain) meaning “Summer’s End”. This was a day when the last harvest was completed and feasts were had. It was also a time when the Celts believed the dead and the faeries could visit the earthly plane easily. These beliefs gave way to our modern Halloween traditions of trick-or-treating and pumpkin carving. But, essentially, the Celts considered this day the last day to harvest before Winter began. Anything left in the fields after Samhain was left for the “good folk” (fairies) and was unlucky to eat or use thereafter.

Dożynki: A Slavic Thanksgiving

Another ancient harvest festival from Europe is Dożynki, which is Slavic in origin. Prior to the conversion of pagan people, Dożynki was celebrated around the Autumn Equinox every year. Just like with the ancient Celtic festivals, the Slavs would gather together to harvest the crop then have a procession through the villages carrying a sheaf or the last bit of plant to be harvested. The women made wreaths from the harvest and gifted the wreaths to the procession’s leader. Following the procession, the people would feast and perform traditional dances.

Jean Leon Gerome Ferris' The First Thanksgiving

The Debate Over Thanksgiving’s Origins

We don’t know if the pilgrims celebrated the harvest in the way we celebrate Thanksgiving today. But there is talk that some sort of religious harvest festival was held in honor of God’s bounty sometime in October or November.

Most Americans are taught that Plymouth was the site of The First Thanksgiving, yet this is heavily debated among historians. Some say Thanksgiving’s origins were based in Saint Augustine, Florida with the Natives and the Spanish, as St. Augustine was the very first city established in the New World. Others claim the First Thanksgiving was most likely in Virginia. Thanksgiving’s TRUE origins are speculative at best.

The Native Americans’ Role in Thanksgiving’s Origins

If the First Thanksgiving was at Plymouth, the Native American tribe involved was the Wampanoag tribe. These were a wandering people who moved often but were also quite hospitable. The Wampanoag tribe was known to be respectful and kind, even to the pilgrims. Because the pilgrims were in a new world and were struggling to survive, they needed the native peoples to show them the ways of the land. The Wampanoag tribe taught them how to build safe dwellings, cultivate corn, and hunt for game. Because the Natives came to the pilgrims aid, they may have held a feast to give thanks for their new friends and survival.

Thanksgiving's origins date back further than Colonial times!

Thanksgiving Today & How to Celebrate as a Pagan

If we look at how we celebrate Thanksgiving today, it’s a lot like how the First Thanksgiving might’ve been. Many of the original foods shared between the pilgrims and the Wampanoag tribe have made their way to our modern tables. The turkey was sacred to Native American tribes and today is the centerpiece of the Thanksgiving table. Corn was an important crop back then and is still eaten at Thanksgiving today. Pumpkins and gourds are either used in Thanksgiving cooking and/or as decorations. By carrying on these food traditions, we are honoring our ancestors and the land’s ancestors (so most of us are already doing this!)

Being Pagan and Celebrating Thanksgiving and Its Origins

Unfortunately, being thankful to the Native peoples of America has all but been washed away in time. We now view Thanksgiving as a time to be thankful for what we have in our lives, which is a WONDERFUL tradition; however, as pagans we should also acknowledge and be thankful for the people who inhabited this land before us. By being aware of what atrocities were done to the Natives is a start.

So can we be pagan, non-native Americans and celebrate Thanksgiving? Of course. Give thanks for what we have in our lives, including food, family, friends and freedom. Say a prayer for those who were wronged by some of our ancestors and do as much good as possible for those in the future. Caring for the land where you live is an act of gratitude to be done on Thanksgiving and year round. In addition, by adding representations of the season to your altar and home you celebrate Thanksgiving and the harvest.

A Modern Pagan Thanksgiving Prayer

“To our gods, guides and ancestors, we give thanks for our lives and all we have together. We honor the ones who came before us and pray that their transgressions against others be absolved by the work of our hands and the gratitude in our hearts. We give thanks for each other and for our freedom. Bless the land’s original peoples and the ones who will come after us. So be it.”

Mabon: A Witch’s Alternative to American Thanksgiving

I know some witches who prefer to celebrate the Witches’ Thanksgiving, which is also known as Mabon a.k.a. the Autumn Equinox. If you don’t feel comfortable celebrating the traditional Thanksgiving, have a harvest feast and make your own traditions on the Autumn Equinox instead. Some Mabon foods to include: apples and apple pie, pumpkins, gourds, herbs, grains and breads, cider, wine, potatoes, pumpkin spice, etc.

Modern witches also enjoy celebrating the pagan Thanksgiving by making corn dollies, redecorating their homes and altars for Autumn, having bonfires, and reflecting on everything there is to be thankful for. My family and I particularly enjoy making a gratitude simmer pot, writing what we are thankful for on bay leaves, and throwing those into the pot. We also enjoy honoring the gods and goddesses of the harvest: Lugh, Mabon, Modron, Persephone, Demeter and Inanna.

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