"I was told there were a lot of myths about Thanksgiving, but I always thought Thanksgiving was a religious holiday. Is it?"
The popular version of the first Thanksgiving goes like this: The Pilgrims arrived in Plymouth, Massachusetts in the winter of 1620. Those who survived that first winter were aided by Squanto, an Algonquin Native American, who helped them plant corn and taught them how to fertilize the crops using fish. After a bounteous fall harvest the Pilgrims invited the Native American tribe that had been so gracious to them to attend a feast in celebration and thanks. The chief accepted, the tribe brought venison, the Pilgrims provided turkey and all the fixin's, and a good time was had by all. Oh yeah, and Thanksgiving has been celebrated every year since then.
That's the more-or-less official version as touted by our schools, churches, and public figures. The reality is less glamourous and in some ways more gruesome. Indeed, the Pilgrims did arrive in Plymouth on December 21st, 1620 -- but only after having been chased out of Cape Cod by the Nauset tribe because they had been grave robbing sacred burial grounds to find food and fortune. In March of 1621, Chief Samoset of the Morattiggon tribe, and Squanto the last survivor of the Pautxet tribe, visited the Pilgrims. Squanto, who had been sold into slavery by the English but had recently been freed, taught the Pilgrims the basics of Algonquin agriculture and helped them plant corn, barley, and peas. After the fall harvest the Pilgrims did indeed host a feast, but they invited another local tribe to attend (not Squanto or Chief Samoset). The Wampanoag tribe brought five deer and ninety men to the feast and the celebration reportedly lasted three days.
The friendly relationship with the Native Americans began to deteriorate almost immediately. The Pilgrims claimed more and more land as "theirs," a concept unknown to the Native Americans, and in 1676 the children of the first "Thanksgiving Pilgrims" killed the Algonquin chief, captured the whole of the Wampanoag tribe and sold them into slavery in the Mediterranean and West Indies.
Thanksgiving didn't become an "official" holiday until 1789 when George Washington issued a proclamation for Thanksgiving celebrations, however the South rejected the Northern proclamation and held their own Thanksgiving a week before the Northern date. The holiday as we know it (complete with all its myths) wasn't a part of our culture until after 1846 when Sarah Hale promoted the celebration in her Ladies Magazine, complete with turkey, stuffing, and minced pies. In 1863 President Lincoln pronounced it a national holiday to be celebrated on the last Thursday in November.
Just how religious is Thanksgiving? The Pilgrims were a devout religious group who came to America because their particular practices of religion weren't tolerated in England (however, neither did the Pilgrims tolerate divergent theologies or practices from their own either). Certainly the Pilgrims were thankful to God for their survival and what good fortune they possessed that first fall. However, the celebration itself was not overtly religious, and in fact, Thanksgiving today is a state ordained affair, not a church holy-day.
But the church has adopted Thanksgiving as one of its own. Not as highly celebrated as Christmas and Easter, it is nonetheless a day set aside to offer thanksgiving to God for the bounteous blessings received during the previous year. Further, a fall festival for offering thanks has ancient biblical origins. In fact, the Old Testament ordains two different harvest festivals each year, one in the spring when the harvest of fruit and grains begins (Exodus 23.16) and one in the fall after the final grain and grape harvest (Leviticus 23.39).
So, even if our modern-day Thanksgiving is a state holiday with dubious beginnings, the church has and should continue to adopt and adapt it as one of our holy-days to give thanks to God for our daily bread.