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Thanksgiving or Harvest?

Thanksgiving or Harvest?

Thanks to Magickal Graphics.

Thanksgiving is often touted as a truly traditional American holiday. As Heathens, we should be quick to note the overall similarities between Thanksgiving and harvest celebrations, but is Thanksgiving truly a harvest celebration, or is it mired in Christian beliefs to the point where we should just ignore it for something else like Freyfaxi?  Here are some of my thoughts.

A Brief History of Thanksgiving

Unless you’re from a country outside of the United States, you’ve heard the story of the Mayflower and the Pilgrims, so I won’t bother repeating what is common knowledge. For those who either live under a rock, or in another country, (or maybe both) here is a nice piece by The History Channel.

Thanks to Magickal Graphics.

But thanksgiving celebrations were common in the New World even before the Mayflower showed up at Plymouth Rock in 1620. Jamestown had thanksgiving celebrations as early as 1607.  Before that, the French and the Spaniards had thanksgiving celebrations in the 1500s.  So, the Pilgrims were not exclusive when it came to thanking the Christian god for harvest, victory over enemies, or any time someone wanted a party. The pilgrims had a thanksgiving celebration in 1621 and again in 1623. The second thanksgiving probably  sparked the observances.

Okay, Maybe Not So Brief…

People in different states, particularly in New England, had thanksgiving celebrations after that time. George Washington requested a thanksgiving celebration in 1777 in December after the colonial army’s victory against the British at Saratoga. There were national proclamations for thanksgiving in 1782, but it was more a day of prayer.  In 1789, Washington declared November 26th to be a day of thanksgiving. But this was a one-time shot which he declared again in 1795. Later presidents also declared days of thanksgiving.

It wasn’t until 1863 when Abraham Lincoln fixed the national holiday of Thanksgiving as the last Thursday of the November. Franklin D. Roosevelt tinkered with the holiday date as making it the fourth Thursday of the month because November occasionally had five Thursdays.

So Where Does Harvest Fit In?

Thanks to Magickal Graphics.

Originally, the pilgrims probably held thanksgiving in September or October to coincide with harvest and to give thanks to the Christian god for their food. The British harvest festival, celebrated around the equinox since pagan times, no doubt inspired the pilgrims’ day of thanks. So, is our celebration Harvest or Thanksgiving?

Well, the answer depends. If you take it purely from the American historical perspective, then yeah, we can say that the holiday is Christian. All the Christian trappings pretty much tie into Thanksgiving nicely. But if we look at the original harvest traditions that inspired Thanksgiving, we can accept it as a pagan holiday, even if the celebration is during a month when the fields are already fallow for the winter. There are certainly great harvest traditions that we can add to Thanksgiving to give it more meaning besides eating turkey and pumpkin pie. Giving thanks to our gods and goddesses for making the food possible is never a bad thing.

A Heathen in a Christian Land

A Heathen in a Christian Land

I’ve been thinking a lot lately on how heathens get treated by dominant religions.  In the past, there were plenty of persecutions — in some countries today, most notably Islamic, you’re likely to be persecuted if you’re not part of their religion.  In true theocracies, our beliefs make our lives difficult. This is why I believe it is important to put things in perspective.  If you’re a heathen like I am, where you live in a Western republic where religion is tolerated, but you don’t necessarily have the support structure to make you feel inclusive in your beliefs, it’s important to keep some perspective.  Five hundred years ago, you’d be dead, and not in a pleasant way.

Dealing with REAL Theocracies

If you’ve lived your entire life in the United States, it’s easy to get riled up about how people react toward you having beliefs that don’t fit the Christian paradigm. Although one of the big principles our country was founded on was the separation of church and state, we still have to acknowledge that Christianity is the big influence in our lives. Even though we have a number of whack-jobs who insist that we should have prayer in school, creationism taught alongside evolution, and other stupid things, we haven’t the same situation that people who live in real theocracies endure.

I knew an Iranian Jew who supported the Shaw of Iran before the Ayatollah took over.  He and his family had to flee for their lives. Think about it. Christians and Jews are constantly persecuted by Islamic extremists, which makes dealing with your neighbor giving you the stink eye because of your hammer pendant laughable.  Okay, so you got some disapproval there.  At least you don’t have to worry about the religion police breaking down your door and arresting you.

Worse for Atheists

 It can even be worse, if you’re atheist. Stumbling across Life as an Atheist in an Islamic Republic is a real eye-opener.  Even if you live in what may be considered a more enlightened Islamic country, you can undergo some pretty nasty abuse — and no one will say anything bad about it because you are considered wrong. Yes, yes, we hear stories of how people treat those who don’t believe in Christ in the South, but unless you get in peoples’ faces, it’s unlikely you’ll be physically abused.

Americans Don’t Like to Talk About Religion

At this point, you may be shaking your head on this, but these numbers seem to play out from my own experience: Americans don’t like to talk about religion.  In fact, according to an interesting post by Atheist Republic, the Pew Research Center (which does a lot of polls) discovered that half of American adults seldom talk about religion to those outside their families. Those who do like to talk about religion are usually the ultra-religious (Oh, THERE’S a surprise — yes, that was sarcasm.)  But what you might not know is that somewhere between 60 and 80 percent actually want to hear about your religion, and agree to disagree.

It Could Be Worse

For all our bitching about Christianity, and how we’ve been treated in the past, at the present, Americans have far fewer problems than we could have.  Certainly there are other religions in this country that have it tougher.  Namely Judaism and moderate Islamism.  If the worse behavior you’ve receive has been weird looks and stink eyes, count yourself lucky.  There are far worse bullying behaviors you could experience. If you’ve been suckered into having dinner at a friend’s place and they tried to convert you, well, you know where that person stands and perhaps you need better friends.  Now, if you’re locked up against your will, beaten, and made to recite bible passages, then you have something.  If you’ve escaped, you had better have reported it to the police.  Being locked up and beaten is more than just a little on the illegal side.

It Could Be Better

Yeah, I’m not saying this country is without faults. We’ve had the Salem Witch Trials, Mountain Meadows Massacre, and extermination of Native Americans under the name of the Christian god for their lands. There have been hate crimes against different faiths. One that springs to mind is hate crimes against Jewish people, but even Catholics, Baptists, Presbyterians, Mormons, and other Christian faiths have experienced intolerance. For a country founded on the separation of church and state, we’ve seen our share of bad behavior.

The problem isn’t usually the majority, although incidents such as 9/11 and other terrorist acts tend to heighten mistrust, and yes, people behave badly because we know that these terror groups have ties to Islam, albeit radical Islam.  It’s common for those of us to look at those “not of our tribe” with suspicion.  It doesn’t make the prejudice right.

Feeling Alone?

Heathenism can be practiced alone, or in a group.  That’s the beauty of it. I’m kind of a solitary kind of gal, so you’re not likely to see me at an Asatru or Heathen gathering.  Even so, there are groups in your neighborhood.  I recommend the American Asatru Association to get more involved.  That way, you don’t have to go it alone.

Eostre — Was Easter Appropriated?

Eostre — Was Easter Appropriated?

As the Rational Heathen, I’ve been called out occasionally on agreeing with the beliefs that Christianity appropriated the trappings and dates of pagan festivals and gave them a shiny new coat of paint and something for the masses to celebrate instead of their old customs.  While I agree that in some cases, particularly Eostre/Ostara, we don’t have the proof, my gut tells me that the trappings surrounding Easter has more to do with pagan origins than Christian ones.  Let me explain.

Easter Bunnies Do Not Make Sense from a Christian Standpoint

While growing up, I had a tough time swallowing the whole rabbit/egg/chicks thing when it came to the resurrection of Christ.  Don’t get me wrong–I love chocolate and eggs and the whole idea of renewal, BUT…nowhere in the Christian bible is there a rabbit handing out eggs and candy.  Nor is a rabbit or an egg linked as a symbol of resurrection in the bible.  I suppose we could look at these as symbols of resurrection, but that sounds remarkably like a rite of spring and not Christ rising from the dead. Yes, yes, we could point to spring as the earth resurrecting from winter, but given that Christ’s crucifixion was only during spring because of Passover (Jesus went to Jerusalem during the feast of Passover), there’s no real bunny-earth-chocolate connection there. The bible doesn’t make that connection, so why do we?  More likely we’ve had something that pointed to rabbits and birds as symbols of springtime as a time of renewal.  I suspect it is the way we celebrated the return of fertility and birth of animals and plants. Being the clever Christians, they quickly pointed to the rabbits and baby birds and said they’re symbols of the Christian Easter.  Easter, which existed for Christians, needed a shiny paint job to get everyone on board with it. Why not go with the fluffy and cute, which probably was already there in the pagan world?

The Easter Bunny

Even admits the ubiquitous Easter bunny most likely has pagan roots because rabbits are prolific little buggers.  What better way to show fertility and new life than something that breeds…er, like rabbits?  The Germans who showed up in the United States in the early 1700s are said to have brought their stories of “Osterhase” or “Oschter Haws,” an egg-laying rabbit. (Incidentally, this isn’t the only occasion Germanic peoples have brought holiday customs to the United States–Christmas is a biggie too.)  It’s interesting to note that Osterhase has a similar root to Ostara.  A coincidence?  Unlikely.

Other candidates for passing out eggs included foxes, storks, and other birds. Let’s continue.


I’m pretty sure Christ wasn’t hatched, so I think it’s pretty safe to say that the colored egg thing isn’t really a Christian thing. A nice stretch the History Channel made–and to be honest, I’ve heard this too–is that the egg symbolizes Christ’s resurrection from the tomb.  Okay, then.  The custom of painting eggs goes back to the 1200s.  Why?  Well, they think that maybe eggs weren’t allowed to be eaten during Lent and painting the eggs for Easter made them extra special.  I can see that…maybe.  In which case, it was a way to make nasty old eggs look yummy.  (The fasting in Lent generally lasts 40 days–you’d have a lot of eggs by then.)  I grew up Roman Catholic, but not eating eggs wasn’t part of Lent when I was growing up. In fact, the Catholic Bishops say eggs are okay, even if you go with the traditional fast.  Maybe this is something pre-Vatican II?

But then we still have the Osterhase who lays colored eggs.  Who knows?  Maybe both contributed to it. One German site I found says that the Babylonians, Egyptians, and Persians looked at eggs as the symbol for rebirth and fertility.  I’m not relying on this site, but it does make sense that a Middle East death cult would take on the trappings of pagan symbols.


I’d love to claim candy as a pagan/heathen tradition, but really the Easter candy started with chocolate eggs in the early 1800s.  Probably a nice little marketing idea.  I’m pretty sure Jesus didn’t give out chocolate eggs at the crucifixion or at the resurrection.

But What About Eostre/Ostara?

Eostre/Ostara isn’t a goddess we know much about.  But I suspect we’ve lost much since the rise of Christianity.  It’s interesting that St. Bede is the reason we even know about Eostre.  He wrote in the 8th century about Eostre who had the month of April bearing her name. There are some folk who even dispute whether or not Eostre was a goddess, but I think it is likely she was. Given the general fertility rites of spring, we can guess that Eostre was a dawn and fertility goddess, akin in some ways to Freyja. Wikipedia states:

“As the Germanic languages descend from Proto-Indo-European (PIE), historical linguists have traced the name to a Proto-Indo-European goddess of the dawn *H₂ewsṓs (→ *Ausṓs), from which descends the Common Germanic divinity from whom Ēostre and Ostara are held to descend…”

I suspect that Eostre and Ostara are names for the Greek goddess of the dawn, Aurora, but this is conjecture on my part. Still the names have basically the same roots, which means that the goddess was worshiped well before our ancestors separated. It also gives me credence when I say that Eostre/Ostara was a goddess and not just a name for opening or new things.

When we talk about Eostre existing or not, this is all more or less by guess and by golly.  Yes, there has been at least one person who has put forth some very convincing arguments that she didn’t exist. No, I’m not convinced, but with good reason.  We just don’t know. The problem with his arguments is no one has a time machine (yet) that allows us to go back and see what really happened.  Where is the Doctor when you need him? (Did you REALLY think I was going to write a post without a Doctor Who reference?  Oh, ye of little faith!)

Trying to Reconstruct from the Ashes

Doctor Who aside, we Heathens are basically left with the smoldering remnants of what used to be a rich and detailed belief system.  We can only gain glimpses of what our ancestors believed and try our best to reconstruct and fill in the blanks. Some of us hear the gods and goddesses and can write about our UPGs, but there’s really no way we can find out scientifically what actually existed without some new artifacts, or someone somehow going back in time and bringing us the information.

Our neolithic ancestors were very sophisticated people who were unlucky enough to not have invented a written language. Even the Norse and Germanic tribes, while they did have the runes, they were used for ceremonies and inscriptions. Looking at the stone age construction we’ve discovered in recent times, shows that our ancestors were quite capable of building impressive temples, stone homes such as those in Skara Brae, and stone monuments.  But much of what they created did not survive. Statues made of wood rotted or were burned. Metal statues of gods were most likely melted down and reused. Without identifiable written language and without much art of gods or goddesses available (and knowing that’s what the art depicted), it’s  questionable that we can ever truly reconstruct what happened in our past.

Whether you believe Eostre is a construct of Bede or not, the point is that Christians took on pagan trappings to ease the masses into their religion. After all, if your god accepts bunnies, chicks, and colored eggs–which is something you did to celebrate your former god–it probably doesn’t matter much to you that the names changed.  It’s the same thing, just a slightly different flavor if you keep the basics intact.