Was Thanksgiving Based on Sukkot, the Feast of Tabernacles?

On the fourth Thursday of November, Americans celebrate the feast of Thanksgiving. The roots of the feast are quite interesting, and relate to the Biblical feast of Sukkot, the Feast of Tabernacles.

“Over three centuries ago”, declared John F. Kennedy, “our forefathers in Virginia and in Massachusetts, far from home in a lonely wilderness, set aside a time of thanksgiving. On the appointed day, they gave reverent thanks for their safety, for the health of their children, for the fertility of their fields, for the love which bound them together, and for the faith which united them with their God.”

The Sukkot connection

Before arriving in America, Christian pilgrims had fled persecution in England, due to their Puritan beliefs, and settled for a while in Holland in 1607. There, they found themselves living among another persecuted group: Sephardic Jews – exiled from Spain.

In 1492, as every American knows, Columbus sailed the ocean blue, but as every Jewish person knows, 1492 was also the year of the Expulsion from Spain. As Jewish people were being hounded out and severely persecuted in Europe, God was opening a door in the New World of the Americas. Under the Spanish Inquisition, Jews were forced to choose between conversion, death, or exile. Many fled, including a group who ended up in the more tolerant country of the Netherlands. That Sephardic Jewish community was later to become neighbors with our British Pilgrims, who arrived at the beginning of the seventeenth century, before making their way to the New World. A new world that would become a haven for persecuted Jewish people in years to come. But these are the events that brought the paths of the British Pilgrims and Sephardic Jews to cross.

On the fifteenth day of the seventh month, when you have gathered in the fruits of the land, you are to keep the Feast of Adonai for seven days.” (Leviticus 23:39)

Similarities between Sukkot and Thanksgiving

Could it be that the first Thanksgiving feast was based on what they had seen of the Jewish Sukkot celebrations, the Feast of Ingathering? There is certainly plenty in common…

– Both involve pilgrims! Just as the Jewish people used to make pilgrimage to Jerusalem three times a year for the high holidays, so the early Christian settlers of America were later known as pilgrims.

– Both started with people groups who had been persecuted and had to escape.

– Both involve the harvest and joyful in-gathering.

– They both happen in the Fall.

– Both are based on the Biblical command to give thanks. Linda Burghardt, author of Jewish Holiday Traditions (Citadel Press, 2001), said, “Sukkot is considered a model for Thanksgiving. Both holidays revolve around showing gratitude for a bountiful harvest.”1 

– Both are based around family and communal gathering.

– Both involve a lot of food and feasting!

– Hilariously (and this is just funny, not a theological point) they both involve “hodu”. Hodu is the Hebrew word for turkey, and it’s also the word for the country of India… but it also means to give thanks! In English, we call that tasty roast bird a turkey, thinking that it originated from Turkey. Israelis call it hodu, thinking that it came from India (Hodu). Either way, hodu is very much on the menu at Thanksgiving!

After the Pilgrims had survived multiple challenges and reaped their first harvest, they began the tradition of giving thanks for the harvest and for the bounty of the year. They threw a three-day celebration, with 90 Wampanoag Native Americans joining the 53 Pilgrims in the feast. The Wampanoag had befriended the Pilgrims, helping them learn how to plant corn, fish and gather berries and nuts. Over the years this event has taken on a bitter taste for many Native Americans in light of what later unfolded, but initially the spirit of the feast was one of joy, celebration, and togetherness in thanksgiving.

“The pilgrims based their customs on the Bible,” said Gloria Kaufer Greene, author of the “New Jewish Holiday Cookbook” (Times Books, 1999). “They knew that Sukkot was an autumn harvest festival, and there is evidence that they fashioned the first Thanksgiving after the Jewish custom of celebrating the success of the year’s crops.” 2 

Gratitude: more important than you think

Today, the feast of Thanksgiving has become almost as important as Christmas in the American calendar, and is a special time for families to get together and be thankful.

The concepts of family gathering and looking back with thankfulness are also the bedrock of the Jewish feasts.

But it is only now with the benefit of neuroscience that we are learning how critical an attitude of gratitude is to our well-being. God knew what He was talking about when He told us that we should give thanks – no matter what:

“Give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” (1 Thessalonians 5:18) 

Believing brain experts like Dr. Daniel Amen and Dr. Caroline Leaf are now unpacking, with scientific findings in one hand and the Bible in the other, just why God insists that we should be thankful. Both of them have truly revelatory treasures to say on the matter, which you can easily find on the internet. But for now, I’ll leave you with these thoughts from Dominic Muir:

You can’t be thankful and proud at the same time.

You can’t be thankful and entitled at the same time.

You can’t be thankful and unforgiving at the same time.

You can’t be thankful and jealous at the same time.

You can’t be thankful and self-pitying at the same time.

You can’t be thankful and worried at the same time.

You can’t be thankful and covetous at the same time.

You can’t be thankful and bitter at the same time.

You can’t be thankful and offended at the same time.

You can’t be thankful and dishonoring at the same time.

You can’t be thankful and selfish at the same time.

You can’t be truly thankful and prayer-less at the same time.

Staying thankful is a very good idea! For a thanksgiving praise time, why not write your own psalm of thanks about what God has done for you in your life, based on the pattern in Psalm 136? Look back over his kindness and provision, his blessings and his direction, and let all the people say, “Give thanks to the Lord for He is good, his love endures forever!”

Hodu l’Adonai ki tov, ki leolam chasdo

הודו לאדוני כי טוב כי לעולם חסדו

Give thanks to the LORD for He is good, and his love endures forever.
Psalm 136

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  1. & 2. Linda Morel, Thanksgiving’s Sukkot Roots,November 20, 2003

Photo by Element5 Digital on Unsplash

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