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Is Thanksgiving a Pagan Holiday?

The congregations of God obey his commands and keep his weekly and annual sabbaths holy. We set those days aside as special time to worship God with his spiritual family. We do not observe annual holidays like Christmas and Easter so why is Thanksgiving different? The common reasoning is that Christmas and Easter are "pagan" holidays, and Thanksgiving is a secular national holiday and does not originate from “paganism”.

Paganism in the Bible

Paganism is used as a corner stone argument for not observing Christmas, Easter, Halloween and many other things, we should have a solid understanding of the word pagan and scriptural teachings about paganism if we are to use it to define our religious beliefs. The original meaning of the word "pagan" was "villager, rustic, civilian", but here's the modern dictionary definition of the word.

pa·gan (noun)
1. one of a people or community observing a polytheistic religion, as the ancient Romans and Greeks. Synonyms: polytheist.
2.a person who is not a Christian, Jew, or Muslim. Synonyms: heathen, gentile; idolator; nonbeliever.
3. an irreligious or hedonistic person.
4.a person deemed savage or uncivilized and morally deficient.

Where is the word "pagan" found in the Bible? If you compare these four major bibles, you will find that the word pagan is not consistently translated or used at all.

  • King James Bible: "pagan" used 0 times
  • New King James Bible: "pagan" used 12 times
  • New International Version Bible: "pagan" used 8 times
  • New American Standard Bible: "pagan" used 1 time

Of these uses of the word pagan, not a single one is translated the same.

So what does this word really mean? The word pagan in Ezra in the NKJV is translated as "foreign" in NASB and KJV is "strange". NKJV Zep 1:4 says "pagan priests" and other translations say "idolatrous priests". NIV use of pagan translates to "idolatrous", "heathen"  and "defiled/polluted/unclean", etc.

So from a purely scriptural sense, the word "pagan" isn't a very accurate word to describe holidays we don't observe. Even by the dictionary and worldly definition, Christmas, Easter and even Halloween (eve of All Saints Day) are considered "Christian" holidays.

Secular National Holiday vs Religious Holiday

One argument for keeping Thanksgiving, but not Christmas and Easter, is that Thanksgiving is a “secular national holiday”. The word secular means "not religious". Worshiping God is religious. It is not a rational argument to state that Thanksgiving is secular therefore we can worship God with this holiday as this is a contradiction.

The scriptural reason we don't keep Christmas, Easter and Halloween

The real reason we don't observe the holidays of the world is because they "add to" or "take away" from God's commands. God specifically warned Israel about this in scripture.

...beware that you are not ensnared to follow them, after they are destroyed before you, and that you do not inquire after their gods, saying, 'How do these nations serve their gods, that I also may do likewise?'

You shall not behave thus toward the LORD your God, for every abominable act which the LORD hates they have done for their gods; for they even burn their sons and daughters in the fire to their gods.

Whatever I command you, you shall be careful to do; you shall not add to nor take away from it.
Deuteronomy 12:30 -32

God commanded us not to "behave" in any way towards him, other than what is commanded. God said "you shall not add to" his commands, is participation in the Thanksgiving ceremonies to give thanks to God "adding" to his commands?

Thanksgiving, a universal religious festival (is this pagan?)

America didn't create Thanksgiving, we adopted it. Thanksgiving's origins can be traced back to Greek and Roman harvest celebrations, by strict dictionary definition, this alone makes Thanksgiving a pagan holiday (ie, polytheistic). You can read a detailed history of Thanksgiving here:

Thanksgiving had been a part of the colony since the first day Puritans arrived in America, but after the American Revolution, some of the founding fathers put an end to government sponsored thanksgiving proclamations. These proclamations integrated religious affairs with civil rule and this was the catalyst for the famous statement "separation of church and state" by Thomas Jefferson.

Like other holidays, a modern Christian veneer has been placed over Thanksgiving, but unique to Thanksgiving is the clearly stated intent by it's creator to institue a universal day of thanks to God as a national American holiday, and combine multiple religions and groups together to observe it.

The individual given the most credit for creating Thanksgiving as an American holiday was Sarah Hale. Sarah Hale spent most of her life spreading the idea of a thanksgiving festival where all people would celebrate it together on the same date. She finally convinced president Abraham Lincoln to proclaim a thanksgiving on the last Thursday of November, 1863, and she had specific reasons for choosing this day. (Lincoln proclaimed two thanksgivings that year)

Syncretism is the combining of multiple religions, and is central to our reasons for rejecting Christmas. We can read and study history to find vaguely where Christmas and Easter were festival based on a combination of multiple religions, but no obvious admissions that this was the direct intention. But with Thanksgiving we have very specific statements of the religiously universal goal of the holiday. Sarah Hale explicitly expressed her desire to combine different religions together to create a universal Thanksgiving Day.

...the establishment and universal observance of one general Christian Festival of Thanksgiving , on the same day of the year, throughout those nations? All sects and creeds who take the Bible as their rule of faith and morals could unite in such a festival. The Jews, also, who find the direct command for a feast at the ingathering of harvest, would gladly join in this Thanksgiving , ... a universal holiday on the LAST THURSDAY OF NOVEMBER.

The enjoyment of it would be heightened in every land by the knowledge that in all other lands where the Bible was the BOOK of faith, in all places throughout the globe where Christians of any nation or creed could meet together, this happy, hallowed festival was and forever would be kept on the last Thursday of November.

... There is something so cheering and delightful in the idea of a DAY OF UNIVERSAL THANKSGIVING , set apart among all the branches of the Christian family
Sarah Hale, Godey's Lady's Book 1861

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Thanksgiving is a universal holiday that combines many religious and civil ideas.
  1. A holiday cannot be both religious and secular at the same time.
  2. The word "pagan" has a fairly modern definition.
  3. Paganism in the bible refers to any religion or people that does not follow God.
  4. We are commanded "do not add or take away" from God's commands on how to worship him. (Christmas, Easter, etc...)
  5. Thanksgiving was adopted by America as a holiday from currently existing practices.
  6. The modern version of Thanksgiving Day was instituted as a universal religious festival. (syncretism)