Is Celebrating Thanksgiving Day a Good Idea For Sikhs?

The Traditional American Feast

Sangat Enjoying Langar
Sangat Enjoying Langar. Photo © [Khalsa Panth]

Thanksgiving Day in America

Thanksgiving is an autumn holiday feast which has its origins in the history of Early America’s settlement by European Pilgrims and Puritans. In America, it's hard not to notice Thanksgiving especially if you have children in Elementary school. Commonly, during the month of November, school classroom history lessons and art projects focus on Thanksgiving's historical aspects.

Thanksgiving is celebrated on the fourth Thursday of each November. Schools typically let out on the preceding Wednesday and Friday following Thanksgiving. Shops display knickknacks and food items especially geared towards the Thanksgiving Day feast. Sikh immigrant’s new to America may be wondering what Thanksgiving is all about and whether its a good idea to participate. Before making such a decision it’s a good idea to have all the facts.

Origin of Thanksgiving Day

The American holiday of Thanksgiving originated with the Pilgrims of Early America. A ship called the Mayflower crossed the Atlantic and arrived at the North Atlantic coast of Early America on December 11, 1620. It carried 102 Pilgrims, nearly half of whom perished the first winter. Sympathetic indigenous people helped the settlers by providing edibles and in the spring taught planting methods necessary for survival. During the summer a drought threatened the new colony.

When autumn came the Pilgrim and Native people shared a pot luck get together to celebrate and give thanks for a successful harvest. A three day long outdoor feast ensued. Similar feasts were held intermittently over the next several seasons.

Historic Thanksgiving Day

The Pilgrim Thanksgiving had little resemblance to modern Thanksgiving feasts and included the produce of harvested crops, foods gotten by foraging and all manner of game and fowl taken in hunting.

Pies, breads, and other baked goods were not to be had as wheat flour and meal were either scare or unattainable.

Harvest festivals were common to Indigenous people of North America as well as many ancient European and Middle Eastern cultures. For a time in the Early American period of history, harvest festivals took on religious overtones of the Puritan immigrants among the settlers. Eventually the Thanksgiving feast became an established tradition among Early American immigrants and settlers, but without any fixed date. In October of 1977, after defeating the British in the Revolutionary war, a Thanksgiving feast proclamation included all 13 American colonies. In 1789, America’s first president, George Washington, declared Thanksgiving to be a national holiday. Subsequent presidents dallied with the holiday's date until a magazine editor, Sarah Josepha Hale, used her influence to persuade President Abraham Lincoln to fix the date to the final Thursday of each November. After a final attempt to change the date in the 1930’s by the Roosevelt administration, Congress voted to forever establish the fourth Thursday of each November to be observed as Thanksgiving Day.

Modern Day Thanksgiving

Modern day Thanksgiving is observed primarily as a family holiday involving a feast served at dinner time on Thursday.

School children are given a three day vacation to accommodate holiday travel in order to be with relatives. Charitable associations provide a free Thanksgiving dinner to needy persons, or people without families.

The traditional Thanksgiving feast generally incorporates a roast turkey complete with stuffing and gravy, cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes, candied yams corn on the cob, a variety of vegetable dishes, apple and pumpkin pie. A vegetarian Thanksgiving excludes the turkey and may instead include a baked pumpkin or squash stuffed with wild rice and nuts.

Sikhism and Thanksgiving

Sikhs living in America generally make use of the Thanksgiving holiday to meet for a kirtan smagham which is a sort of Sikhism camp meeting. Sikhs may travel from all over the US and Canada and other continents such as Europe, India, Malaysia and Australia to participate in a kirtan smagham.

Typically a smagham often begins with a kirtan program and singing hymns of praise on Wednesday evening. Kirtan programs are held each morning and evening through out the Thanksgiving holiday and may rotate locations to include several gurdwaras or be hosted in homes of the devout. The smagham may include an akhand paath, or continuous unbroken reading of the Sikhism scripture, Guru Granth Sahib. An akhand paath usually lasts 48 hours, but depending on the skill of readers, may take up to 72 hours to complete. Sikhs meet daily around 3am for Amritvela, or early morning meditation and prayers and to sing the hymns of Asa di Var. Langar, a free communal meal is served is served mid morning and following the kirtan program each evening. Saturday evening an Amritsanchar or Sikh initiation baptismal ceremony may be held. Meanwhile an all night kirtan program, or rainsabaee, takes place until dawn Sunday morning. The smagham concludes with langar. Snack lunches are distributed to travelers for the journey home.

Deciding How to Spend Your Holidays

Thanksgiving is perhaps the American holiday which is most like Sikhism, in that both are altruistic in nature, include free communal meals, and often incorporate worship expressing gratitude and praise.

A Sikh has to come to a decision about how to conduct life based on the understanding and willingness to follow Sikh principles. The initiated Khalsa Sikh has no ties to festivities outside of Sikhism. However celebrating with others is not considered a breach of conduct.

If you wish to excuse or exclude yourself, do so with humility. If a situation occurs which does not allow you to bow out gracefully, but will not violate your oath as Khalsa, take part wholeheartedly with love. A true Sikh remains focused on the relationship with the divine no matter what the activity. When deciding how to spend your Thanksgiving, holiday, give thanks, and consider the following options. Prepare and share:

  • Langar with your family or friends.
  • Langar with the lonely or less fortunate.
  • Langar while worshiping with sangat, (spiritual companions).

Bibek Recipes With Traditional Thanksgiving Flavors

Try these traditional Thanksgiving flavor bibek recipes which feature fruits and vegetables which ripen in fall such as apples and pumpkins.