Was the First Thanksgiving a Feast of Tabernacles Celebration?
Could the first Thanksgiving feast have been inspired by their observations of Bible Sukkot rituals, the Feast of Tabernacles in Leviticus?
Thanksgiving will be observed in the United States on this Thursday. This holiday hs evolved from a season of family and fellowship into a weekend of football and an obsessive "spendfest" in search of the best Black Friday discounts.
Aside from a few moments of reflection on the worldly items for which we are grateful, I worry whether we have lost sight of the genuine spirit of Thanksgiving.
The Puritans, the first people to celebrate Thanksgiving, were well informed in the Bible and understood that Sukkot was the harvest festival.
The First Thanksgiving
The pilgrims based their customs on the Bible. 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.
After the Pilgrims had overcome numerous hardships and harvested their first harvest, they established the custom of giving thanks for the harvest and the abundance of the year. They staged a three-day party, with 90 Wampanoag Native Americans joining the 53 Pilgrims.
Christian pilgrims fled persecution in England due to their Puritan views and resided in Holland for a time in 1607. They found themselves living among another oppressed group: exiled Sephardic Jews from Spain.
Many Americans, upon seeing a decorated sukkah for the first time, remark on how much the sukkah (and the holiday generally) reminds them of Thanksgiving.
The American pilgrims, who originated the Thanksgiving holiday, were deeply religious people. As they were trying to find a way to express their thanks for their survival and for the harvest, it is quite possible that they looked to the Bible (Leviticus 23:39) for an appropriate way of celebrating and based their holiday in part on the Feast of Tabernacles. There is undoubtedly a lot in common.
- Both take place in the fall.
- Both are about pilgrims! The early Christian immigrants of America were later known as pilgrims, much as the Jewish people used to make pilgrimage to Jerusalem three times a year for the holy holidays.
- Both began with people groups who were persecuted and had to flee.
- Both require harvesting and joyous gathering.
- Both are based on the Biblical exhortation to express gratitude. Sukkot is regarded as a model for Thanksgiving.
- Both celebrations are centered on expressing appreciation for a plentiful harvest.
- Both are centered on family and communal gatherings.
- Both feature an abundance of food and feasting!
Sukkoth or The Feasts of Tabernacles
The Feast of Tabernacles begins five days after Yom Kippur on the fifteenth of Tishri (September or October). It is a drastic change from one of the most solemn holidays in our year to one of the most joyous. Tabernacles is also known as the Feast of the Ingathering, Feast of the Booths, Sukkoth, Succoth, or Sukkot (variations in spellings occur because these words are transliterations of the Hebrew word pronounced “Sue-coat”).
The Feast of Tabernacles is a week-long fall harvest festival commemorating the 40-year journey of the Israelites in the wilderness. In many ways, this happy celebration of the crops is like a Thanksgiving Day celebration. (Lev. 23:34).
The Feast of Tabernacles was the final and most important holiday of the year. The importance of this festival is indicated by the statement, “This is to be a lasting ordinance.” The divine pronouncement, “I am the Lord your God,” concludes this section on the holidays of the seventh month.
The word Sukkoth means “booths,” and refers to the temporary dwellings that Jews are commanded to live in during this holiday, just as the Jews did in the wilderness. The Feast of Tabernacles lasts for seven days and ends on the twenty-first day (3×7) of the Hebrew month of Tishri, which is Israel’s seventh month.
This holiday has a dual significance: historical and agricultural (just as Passover and Pentecost). Historically, it was to be kept in remembrance of the dwelling in tents in the wilderness for the forty-year period during which the children of Israel were wandering in the desert.
It is expounded in Leviticus 23:43 That your generations may know that I made the children of Israel to dwell in booths, when I brought them out of the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God.
What were they to remember?
They were to observe this festival in thanksgiving to God for all the blessings of the year; nonetheless, the emphasis is on redemption, which in its ultimate meaning is the forgiveness of sin. This distinguishes this event from the harvest holidays of neighboring nations.
- How humble they were to begin with and how God brought them up from a low and empty place. (1 Peter 5:6-7)
- Because God was so kind to them, when they lived in tents, He not only set up a tent for Himself among them, but He also hung a cover over them, a cloud, to protect them from the sun's heat. We should always remember the good things God has done for us and those who came before us.
Happy Thanksgiving! Giving thanks on every day days is an excellent thing. It is a tradition that we should all embrace.
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