Is Thanksgiving modeled on Sukkot?

The Puritans, who were the first people to celebrate Thanksgiving, were well versed in Bible and knew that Sukkot was the harvest holiday

Thanksgiving dinner is coming (photo credit: REUTERS)
Thanksgiving dinner is coming
(photo credit: REUTERS)
It’s Thanksgiving time in the USA. That means turkey with gravy, stuffing and cranberry sauce, football – lots of football – and the annual televised Macy’s Day Parade. And shopping. It means spending time with friends and family. According to statistics gathered after the big day, even those people who refrain from turkey and football indulge themselves and shop.
Brick and mortar stores and Internet web-stores have been priming patrons with their special prices for days on end. Thanksgiving specials, followed by “Black Friday” specials and “Cyber Monday” specials are now preceded with pre-sales and specials.
The last float in the Macy’s Day Parade, the float right before the sanitation crews come parading down the streets with their brooms and buckets, is always Santa. That’s because the entire reason Macy’s sponsors the parade is to advertise the store and instill the shopping spirit all across America.
While that might not be what George Washington, the first president of the United States of America had in mind when he signed a presidential proclamation marking the first-ever Thanksgiving celebration, it’s not that far off. In his proclamation, Washington wrote: “I do recommend and assign Thursday, the 26th day of November next, to be devoted by the people of these States to the service of that great and glorious Being who is the beneficent author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be; that we may then all unite in rendering unto Him our sincere and humble thanks for His kind care and protection of the people of this country previous to their becoming a nation.” And that was it: a one-time event – until Abraham Lincoln re-instated the day.
In 1863, Lincoln, the 16th president of the United States, signed his own proclamation making Thanksgiving a national holiday to be celebrated on the last Thursday of November, which made it either the fourth or fifth Thursday of the month. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the 32nd president, signed his own order, mandating that Thanksgiving always be celebrated on the fourth Thursday of November, even if it was a month with five Thursdays.
Roosevelt made his decision in response to pleas from retailers begging for more pre-Christmas retail time. That was in 1939. Eighty years later, retailers have stretched the parameters, but the link between Thanksgiving and shopping remains strong and solid.
In many ways, Thanksgiving is all about links. Not only is it the busiest shopping time of year, it is also the busiest travel time of the year for Americans. Family members who do not see each other all year make it a point to get together – not for Christmas or Easter, but for Thanksgiving. For them, like for Jewish Americans, Thanksgiving is the perfect time of year to celebrate because it is free of religious overtones. It’s not Christian; it’s not pagan.
BUT, AND here’s the interesting part, it might be more Jewish than you’d expect.
There is ample argument that Thanksgiving is modeled on the ancient Israelite celebration of the biblical holiday Sukkot, which was the harvest, and on the bikurim, the first fruit offering made starting on Shavuot.
The Puritans, who settled in New England, were the first people to celebrate our Thanksgiving. They were well versed in Bible and knew that Sukkot, translated as the Feast of Tabernacles or the Feast of Booths, was the harvest holiday. They also knew that it was celebrated during the fall season. The Puritans also saw themselves as the Israelites. Today we would say they “identified” as Israelites. They compared their voyage across the Atlantic to the Children of Israel crossing the Red Sea; they viewed the tribulations and hardships of their first years in their new land as the time the Israelites spent wandering through the desert.
Their lives were dependent on nature, on rain and on sun. And they expressed their gratitude by way of a feast. Think bikurim, Puritan-style. But even before the Puritans and George Washington, there were traditions of thanks and giving.
The Greeks called it Thesmorphia. It took place over three days in the fall. The Romans called it Cerelia, in honor of their god Ceres, the god of grain. Ancient Egyptians had a holiday named after their god of fertility and vegetation named Min. It was celebrated at the end of the harvest. The Chinese had a harvest festival that they called Chung Ch’ui. It was a three-day feast, during which they harvested fruit and baked round, yellow cakes to symbolize the full moon. The Chinese holiday always fell on the 15th day of the eighth month which is always a full moon – as Sukkot falls on the 15th of Tishrei.
Do Jewish Americans celebrate Thanksgiving? Many do and many don’t. Many celebrate it on the actual day, while many celebrate the next day, Friday, and serve turkey and all the trimmings as part of their Shabbat meal. Many just watch football and most shop. There’s no stigma or pressure either way.
There is one new twist to Thanksgiving, one new tradition that has been created – and it happened without a presidential proclamation. For many people, “Thanksgiving” has been replaced with “Friendsgiving.” The term first came about in 2007. It refers to time spent with friends either on the traditional turkey day or sometime around that day; a day spent with friends who are like family – without the emotional overlay.
Happy Thanksgiving to those who mark the day, and to those who don’t. Giving thanks on any day and every day is a good idea. It is a tradition we should all embrace.
The writer is a political commentator who hosts the TV show Thinking Out Loud on JBS TV. Follow him on Twitter @MicahHalpern.