Thanksgiving at Plymouth, a 1925 painting by Jennie Augusta Brownscombe

Four Ways to Turn Thanksgiving from a Holiday into a Holy Day

This post is adapted from a talk I gave in a sacrament meeting in November 2023.

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What Are the Origins of Thanksgiving?

I love Thanksgiving. It’s easily my second-favorite holiday after Christmas. I love the good food. I love spending time with family. I love setting up an autoresponder on my work email and taking a break from spreadsheets and Zoom meetings for a few days.

But this year, I’ve been thinking: is that all that Thanksgiving is? A vacation from the daily grind to eat turkey and mashed potatoes with our cousins, as we talk about what we’re grateful for? Maybe play a little football?

What do we celebrate when we celebrate Thanksgiving?

Let’s explore the history and origins of Thanksgiving, and uncover four ways we can turn this holiday into a holy day, one focused not on food and family, but on our lord and savior, Jesus Christ.

A Story

Let’s start with a story.

Many years ago, a community gathered for a feast. This community had left their homes because of their faith in God. They had wandered for many years and suffered terrible hardships. Many had died. But they had arrived in a new land. Now they gathered to celebrate a harvest and to thank their God for preserving them, for giving them freedom, and for bringing them to a place they could finally call home.

Who am I describing?

One group I am describing are the Pilgrims.

The Pilgrims and the Thanksgiving of 1621

The Pilgrims were members of an English religious movement known as the Separatists, because they wanted to separate from the Church of England and be free to worship God as they best saw fit. Due to persecution, in 1608 a group of these Separatists fled to the Netherlands. While the Netherlands offered them religious liberty, they were foreigners in a different culture and language, and they worried about their children losing their original identity. The Netherlands was not truly home.

So in 1620, 102 passengers and 30 crew set sail for America on the Mayflower. After two difficult months at sea, they arrived in what is now called Massachusetts. The Pilgrims arrived in November and had to survive winter with no shelter and limited supplies. By the next spring, nearly half of the Pilgrims had died from exposure or disease.

That same spring, the Pilgrims began a friendship with a nearby Native American tribe. With their help, the Pilgrims learned how to grow corn and survive in the new land.

After a successful harvest that fall, the Pilgrims gathered for a feast in October 1621, one year after their original landing in America. The celebration lasted three days and was shared by the 53 surviving Pilgrims and 90 Native Americans. It included corn, fish, waterfowl, wild turkeys, and deer meat. (Mmm. How many of you had venison for your last Thanksgiving dinner?) Throughout the feast, the Pilgrims praised and worshiped God for preserving their lives and for bringing them to a new home where they could finally worship God free from oppression.

This feast in 1621 gave rise to annual days of thanksgiving in New England. More than two hundred years later, Thanksgiving was declared a national holiday by Abraham Lincoln, as a way to promote national unity during the Civil War.

Lessons from the Pilgrims

What do we learn from the Pilgrims about Thanksgiving?

First, Thanksgiving is a harvest festival. Harvest festivals have occurred in religions and cultures around the world for thousands of years. They are a time when we thank and praise God for a successful yield of crops—which, for most of mankind, has meant the difference between life and death. Although most of our jobs are no longer linked to the crop cycle, we can still make Thanksgiving a time of thanking God for our jobs, our livelihoods, and all the ways He has sustained us in the past year. Conveniently, Thanksgiving occurs around the same time as Tithing Declaration. Tithing Declaration is a great opportunity to count up our income for the year and think about all the ways God has blessed us financially and temporally.

Second, we learn from the Pilgrims that Thanksgiving is a celebration of intercultural unity. The Pilgrims and the Native Americans, though very different, formed a relationship built on friendship and trust. While that peace would not last long in New England, the first Thanksgiving represented an ideal of building bridges across cultures, an ideal we can strive for today.

A Story (Revisited)

So, we learned from the Pilgrims that Thanksgiving can be a time of praising God for a successful “harvest” and an opportunity to build bridges across cultures.

But that wasn’t the only group I was talking about. Let’s return to our opening story:

Many years ago, a community gathered for a feast. This community had left their homes because of their faith in God. They had wandered for many years and suffered terrible hardships. Many had died. But they had arrived in a new land. Now they gathered to celebrate a harvest and to thank their God for preserving them, for giving them freedom, and for bringing them to a place they could finally call home.

Who else am I describing?

I am describing the ancient Israelites, and their feast known as the Feast of Ingathering.

The Israelite Feast of Ingathering (Sukkot)

The Feast of Ingathering was one of several religious festivals outlined in the Law of Moses. The Lord’s instructions for this feast are recorded in Leviticus 23:

“[On] the fifteenth day of the seventh month, when you have gathered in the produce of the land, you shall keep the festival of the Lord . . . seven days, [with] a complete rest on the first day and a complete rest on the eighth day. . . . you shall rejoice before the Lord your God for seven days. . . . You shall live in booths for seven days, . . . so that your generations may know that I made the Israelites live in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.” (Leviticus 23, NRSV)

Similar to our modern Thanksgiving, the Feast of Ingathering was a harvest festival: a time to praise God for the year’s harvest. But the Feast of Ingathering was more than that. The Israelites were commanded to construct temporary booths, or shelters, and to live in those shelters for seven days. (This practice is still observed by many Jews today. I remember one of my BYU professors showing us a video he took while living in Israel with his family. They had built out on their apartment balcony a frame covered in palm leaves and fabric. As he panned the video around, you could see similar shelters on every other balcony around them. The Hebrew word for these booths is Sukkot, which is the modern Jewish name for this festival.)

So why were the Israelites to live in booths? To remind them of the wanderings of their ancestors. For forty years, the Israelites under Moses lived in tents in the wilderness. They had suffered terrible hardships, and many had died. But God had preserved them and brought them to a land they could finally call home.

The Feast of Ingathering was also a time of animal sacrifice. Numbers chapter 24 dictates the exact number of animals to be sacrificed throughout the 8-day feast: 8 goats, 15 rams, 71 cows, and 105 lambs, for a total of 199 animals.

Lessons from the Feast of Ingathering

Okay. What do we learn about Thanksgiving from the ancient Israelite Feast of Ingathering? First, Thanksgiving can be a time to remember the deliverance of our ancestors. We do not spend Thanksgiving living in tents (though personally I think that sounds super fun), but we can still tell our children about how God delivered both the ancient Israelites and the Pilgrims. They are a part of our heritage. We are all descendants of the House of Israel. Many of us are descended from the Pilgrims. I personally have ten direct ancestors who sailed on the Mayflower. And perhaps we have other stories, stories of parents or grandparents who were delivered by the power of God.

Second, we learn that Thanksgiving can be a time of sacrifice. This is another way it goes hand-in-hand with Tithing Declaration. During Tithing Declaration, we certify to God that we have sacrificed a tenth of all our income to Him. As we sacrifice, we can also think about the ultimate sacrifice, the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. Every animal sacrifice under the Law of Moses, including those 199 animals offered during Sukkot, pointed to the sacrifice of God’s only begotten son. Viewed in this light, Thanksgiving is the perfect segue into Christmas. Both of these holidays are, at their core, a celebration of God’s matchless gift of His divine son.


How can we turn Thanksgiving from a holiday into a holy day? One centered on Jesus Christ?

  1. First, we can praise God for the “harvest” of blessings received in the past year, remembering “that every good gift cometh of Christ.”
  2. Second, we can build friendships across cultures, just as the Pilgrims and the Native Americans did, remembering that Christ commanded us to love both our neighbors and our enemies.
  3. Third, we can retell the stories of Christ miraculously delivering the Pilgrims, the ancient Israelites, and anyone else in our family heritage.
  4. And fourth, we can give an accounting of the sacrifices we have made, and ponder how to more fully consecrate our lives to Jesus Christ in the coming year. And we give thanks for the gift of God’s great and eternal sacrifice, the Lamb of God, the Savior of the World. It is he who is the source of all prosperity. It is he who secured our liberty from sin. It is he who makes it possible for us to cross our personal wilderness, our spiritual ocean, and bring us safely to the shores of our heavenly home, our true home, a place of endless abundance and rest. There, one day, we will sit down with Jesus, with Heavenly Father, and with the rest of our divine family to a great heavenly feast, a feast compared to which any earthly Thanksgiving is but a type and shadow.

I thank God for this most holy day of Thanksgiving, and all it can mean as we truly center it on God and on His son, Jesus Christ. 

Image credit: Jennie Augusta Brownscombe, Thanksgiving at Plymouth, oil on canvas, 1925. Public domain via

2 thoughts on “Four Ways to Turn Thanksgiving from a Holiday into a Holy Day”

  1. I have to say, I have no desire to spend any part of November in a tent — but I wouldn’t mind trying it during Sukkot one time. Thanks for this great post, there’s some wonderful food for thought here.

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