For well over a century, Thanksgiving has been an annual national observance. The origin and significance of any celebration can easily become obscured over such a long period. So, while Thanksgiving Dinners bring families and friends together all over our country, the richness of the holiday's history is often ignored.
Celebrate Thanksgiving, Jay J. Harris
This is similar to how the rest of the world views Christmas and Easter, the real history of these holidays is largely ignored. But with Thanksgiving, even if you wanted to know where it came from you have to understand two historically different observances that have merged to create our current holiday. The Puritan religious and civil act of setting aside a day to give thanks to God and the European and English harvest festivals also called thanksgivings.
Since the days were spent [in 1621] in feasting and games, it was a celebration and not a true thanksgiving in the eyes of the Pilgrims.
Did the Pilgrims also hold what they considered a real Thanksgiving?
Yes. In 1623, two years after the three-day feast, the Pilgrims held what has been called their “actual first declared Thanksgiving.” They set the day aside to offer thanks when rains ended a long drought.
Over the years, the differences between the two events became blurred in the public mind. Now our observance of Thanksgiving Day mostly resembles the harvest celebration of 1621.
Celebrate Thanksgiving, Jay J. Harris (emphasis added)
How can we tell which is which? One key difference between a thanksgiving harvest festival and a religious thanksgiving is that the harvest festival is an annual event, where a religious thanksgiving was proclaimed in response to divine intervention. In the creation of the modern American Thanksgiving holiday, Sarah Hale pushed to combine these two ideas, first by setting the timing of Thanksgiving to allow the entire nation to keep it after their harvests, and secondly by starting the tradition of an annual national thanksgiving based on religious ideals regardless of divine intervention.
Special days of thanksgiving marked by religious services were an important part of English life. The Plymouth colonists brought this tradition with them to New England where it evolved over the years in the colony. The colonists' religious days of thanksgiving involved morning and afternoon services. Worship rather than feasting was the focus of the early thanksgivings.
1621: A New Look at Thanksgiving, Catherine O'Neill Grace (emphasis added)
Here is where we have a split in the understanding of what Thanksgiving Day is. On one hand we have an enormous amount of documented history of government leaders proclaiming days of thanksgiving. The second half of the dichotomy is how the people were observing the thanksgivings regardless of proclamations. The wording and direction of the proclamations were most often religious, but the people did not always keep a proclaimed day of thanks in a religious manner, as this was not their custom.
President Lincoln twice before had set national days of thanksgiving for Union successes during the troubled days of our Civil War. Mrs. Hale now asked the President to proclaim Thanksgiving as a national holiday unrelated to any specific event.
Celebrate Thanksgiving, Jay J. Harris
The Governor of New Hampshire in 1855 specifically addressed this issue in his thanksgiving proclamation. Near the end of his proclamation, after declaring the day as a day of “Prayer, Praise and thanksgiving to God”, he says “I would most earnestly recommend that the people, omitting all labor and amusement inconsistent with the solemnities of the occasion”.1 As far back as 150 years ago the behavior surrounding Thanksgiving Day wasn't always religious, as the proclamations described it should be. We seem to popularly believe that food and football is a recent problem, but it has always been one.
The Pilgrim and Puritan version of an official day of thanksgiving often included a fast, may have been solemn and was observed by a religious gathering to praise God and give thanks to him through singing and prayer, all of which are biblically based. But our modern Thanksgiving has almost none of this influence left, similar to Christmas, Easter and Halloween, which at times in the past were extremely religious observances.