As November winds down and much of the U.S. has seen temperatures turn colder and the leaves fallen from the trees, the Thanksgiving holiday begins what is unofficially referred to as the "holiday season" in the States. In the modern-day, Thanksgiving is largely about gathering with family and friends to gather together, share a large feast and, in most modern celebrations, watch football. While everyone has their own unique traditions for celebrating Thanksgiving - from the traditional turkey, mashed potatoes and stuffing dinner to more modern variances, the common thread always seems to be the gathering itself.
While the holiday has been largely secularized - with the most religious element in the modern celebration being a prayer before the traditional feast - Thanksgiving is traditionally a more religious event. Thanksgiving falls on the fourth Thursday of November in the U.S. and traditionally is a time to give thanks for a bountiful harvest and, more generally, simply to give thanks to God. While the first Thanksgiving is widely believed and often reported to have occurred in Plymouth, Massachusetts in 1621, there is strong evidence that an earlier Thanksgiving celebration took place in Canada and by the Spanish in Florida, both in the middle of the 16th century.
Among English colonists in the U.S., it is known that an earlier celebration occurred in Charles City, Virginia in 1619, two years before the Plymouth celebration. Thus, the first wholly "American" Thanksgiving (involving a celebration in the current U.S. and by English settlers) was definitively celebrated in Virginia.
Nonetheless, the celebrations in both Virginia and Massachusetts had at least some basis in religion and both were modeled to a large extent on the harvest festivals that were prevalent throughout Europe. The Massachusetts Pilgrims, fleeing religious persecution in England, were perhaps the most arduous of the celebrants of the holiday, as religion permeated their way of life even more strongly than in other Christian faiths. It is this Massachusetts celebration then that has marked the holiday as one with a religious beginning.
Over 150 years after those first celebrations, President George Washington proclaimed that a "Thanksgiving to God" would occur and that it would occur on the first Thursday in November of that year (1789). Though he declared it a holiday, it was largely celebrated at the state level only, and the proclamation did not establish the holiday as an annual one. While the secularization of most aspects of U.S. culture has dictated that such proclamations not be made in the modern-day, it is clear that the relationship between worship and the holiday was a close one in its earliest form.
Later still, President Lincoln declared that the last Thursday in November would be official made into the Thanksgiving holiday, to be celebrated each year. Even then, Lincoln, who was not a particularly religious man, associated Thanksgiving with religion, and claimed that he "came to Christianity" only after seeing the violence rendered by the Battle of Gettysburg. That experience may have contributed to his naming of the holiday as an annual celebration.
For those who will be celebrating Thanksgiving this year, whether religious or not, the holiday is clearly the result of a tradition of giving thanks to God. And while those in the modern-day do not always give thanks to any specific entity, a general "giving of thanks" has its roots in this religious tradition.