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Thanksgiving Day as a Harvest Festival

Pieter Breugel, the Elder, "The Peasant Wedding"

1,183 words

Thanksgiving Day is America’s incarnation of the traditional harvest festival, a celebration of the end of the summer harvest, often marked by lavish feasts.

Harvest festivals were a product of the Neolithic revolution—the displacement of hunting and gathering by the domestication of plants and animals as the primary means of subsistence.

The agricultural revolution occurred at different times in different places around the world—as early as 9,000–12,000 years ago in some regions. In certain areas farming arose through indigenous innovations, while in others it spread from other areas.

The spread of farming was slow. Within Europe, it began as early as c. 7000–6000 BC in the eastern Mediterranean but did not reach some areas of northern Europe until c. 2500 BC—more than three millennia later.

Though slow to propagate, agriculture had profound social effects. Among its many far-reaching consequences were stable settlements, the beginnings of social hierarchy and individual wealth, the rise of large-scale trade networks, the use of domesticated plants in the weaving of textiles, and, most importantly, a dramatic population increase: “The population explosion of the Neolithic Demographic Transition, detectable in cemeteries, was unprecedented in the history of Homo sapiens.”

During pre-industrial times spanning thousands of years from the prehistoric, ancient, and medieval periods to the era of industrialization beginning in 1700, most whites lived their entire lives, generation after generation, on farms or in rural villages. White populations were chiefly rural rather than urban in the numerical sense until well into the 19th and 20th centuries.

Harvest Festivals

A key feature of rural life was the successful harvest, the climax of the year’s labors, upon which personal, familial, and community prosperity depended.

My mother, the daughter of Norwegian immigrants in North Dakota, frequently spoke of harvest time on the farm where she grew up in the 1920s and ’30s. The harvest was a festive, communal occasion requiring the labor of many people, whether threshing crews or neighbors. The hardworking women and girls prepared large, delicious meals for the men during their breaks from the hot, backbreaking toil in the fields. Much socializing also went on.

Harvest festivals were common in Europe throughout the long millennia of rural life.

The ancient Greeks honored Demeter, a harvest and fertility goddess, while Romans honored Ceres, their goddess of agriculture, from whom our word cereal derives.

The Celtic druids also had harvest festivals

Today in Britain, Australia, and other parts of the English-speaking world, people celebrate the Harvest Home festival or Harvest Thanksgiving as an unofficial religious holiday, usually observed on a Sunday in late September or early October.

In Canada, Thanksgiving is a legal holiday celebrated on the second Monday in October. It was celebrated by the English settlers, but initially as a predominantly harvest festival especially by the French Canadians.

St. Martin’s Day is a feast or harvest day that has been celebrated throughout continental Europe since the Middle Ages.

Although harvest festivals have existed for thousands of years, it is important to emphasize that they were not restricted solely to Europe, but occurred in other areas where the soil was cultivated.

A specifically Aryan example is Iran’s Mehrgân, or Festival of Autumn, a Zoroastrian-Persian gala celebrated since pre-Islamic times. In present-day Iran it is one of the few pre-Islamic festivals still celebrated by the public at large. It corresponded to the day on which farmers collected their crops, and was, in part, an expression of gratitude that God had provided the Aryans with food to survive the coming cold months.

Even the Jewish feasts of Shavuot (“Feast of Weeks”) and Sukkoth (“Feast of Tabernacles”) are, in origin, harvest festivals. However, it would require careful examination to determine whether these celebrations are in fact authentic expressions of rural historical experience, or more or less ersatz responses to Gentile harvest celebrations.


Although the traditional Thanksgiving holiday as observed since (probably) the second half of the 19th century in the United States, centering around family get-togethers and sumptuous turkey feasts, is a harvest festival in origin despite the conscious loss of the connection, it is not the case that the many official “Thanksgiving” proclamations by early Spanish and English settlers in Florida and Virginia, the Continental Congress, or George Washington, John Adams, James Madison, Abraham Lincoln and other presidents, were directly related to the original Pilgrim celebration or to harvest festivals generally—although a handful of them do contain brief allusions to prosperous husbandry or bountiful harvests.

Instead, the thanks being offered was frequently for safe arrival, success in war, general prosperity, and the like. Also, the official wording was typically deistic or Freemasonic in form, or, much later, Judeo-Christian (“Almighty God”) rather than Christian. Jesus Christ and Christianity are almost never mentioned.

The first (Pilgrim) Thanksgiving in 1621, however—which at some point became inextricably bound in the American mind with the national Thanksgiving holiday—was a harvest festival.

In a passage that is one of only two surviving primary sources about the first thanksgiving, Edward Winslow, an English Pilgrim leader on the Mayflower who subsequently served three terms as governor of Plymouth Colony, wrote:

Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after a special manner rejoice together, after we had gathered the fruits of our labors; they four in one day killed as much fowl, as with a little help beside, served the Company almost a week, at which time amongst other Recreations, we exercised our Arms, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and amongst the rest their greatest king Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five Deer, which they brought to the Plantation and bestowed on our Governor, and upon the Captain and others.  And although it be not always so plentiful, as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so far from want, that we often wish you partakers of our plenty.

Paradoxically, cultivated crops and domestically-raised meat at the 1621 Plymouth celebration comprised only a small portion of the communal repast. They were supplemented with foodstuffs obtained by hunting, fishing, and gathering: venison (deer meat), wild fowl (ducks, geese, swans, and turkey), fish (cod, eels, and bass), shellfish (clams, lobster, and mussels), berries, fruit, wild onion, and—finally!—cultivated barley, wheat, vegetables, beans, dried Indian maize, and squash.

Although the details of prehistoric agricultural expansion across Europe, and the continent’s deforestation as it was transformed from woodland to fields, are shrouded in the mists of time, in broad outline the process doubtless bore many resemblances to the frontier settlement of North America.

Even the flintlock weapons employed by the Pilgrim hunters incorporated carefully shaped flints (very hard, fine-grained quartz) reminiscent of the microliths of the Mesolithic and early Neolithic, which, when struck against steel, ignited the firearm with a spark. Likewise, American frontiersmen routinely carried flint and steel to light their fires (they didn’t have matches!).

The first Thanksgiving thus displayed some striking parallels to the period of early Stone Age agriculture in Europe thousands of years before, as well as reflecting age-old European harvest customs.



  1. Tabu LaRaza
    Posted November 25, 2011 at 8:01 pm | Permalink

    A great story here (be thankful for US)

  2. Sandy
    Posted November 26, 2011 at 4:57 am | Permalink

    Andrew, you mentioned Indian Corn being eaten at America’s first Thanksgiving in 1621. It is said that at Rosslyn Chapel in Scotland one of the windows is surrounded by carvings of Indian Corn. The chapel was bult in 1446 which was before the Mayflower landed in America and even before Columbus found the continent. One wonders.

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