Among some who study the American Pilgrims and Jewish History (see Gloria Kaufer Greene, Rabbi Elias Lieberman, Caleb Johnson) there is a belief that the American holiday, Thanksgiving, has its roots in the Jewish holiday of Sukkot.
The argument is that the first Thanksgiving bore a striking resemblance to Biblical descriptions of and requirements for Sukkot. In addition, the Pilgrims being a people well-versed in the Bible, would have looked to the Bible for guidance in framing their first "tradition."
We do know that the date of the first American Thanksgiving is not known. The Pilgrims arrived at Cape Cod on November 21, 1620 and perhaps this is why the official Thanksgiving Day occurs around that time. The Pilgrims did not leave the Mayflower and begin to build their fort and houses until December 25, 1620. This day was a workday, Christmas having been outlawed by English separatists as a pagan, Romish tradition.
There was a feast in 1621 attended by both Plymouth settlers and their Wampanoag neighbors. The celebration of "Thanksgiving" did not occur in Plymouth until 1623 and it was a day of prayer (generally these were fast days in Plymouth), not a feast day. We also know that harvest festivals were common to both the English and the Wampanoag. Communities in other colonies also held Thanksgivings at various times of the year from June through December.
Thanksgiving was not deemed an official tradition in the US until Abraham Lincoln pronounced it so in 1863. It did not become a national holiday until declared so by congress in 1941.
It was not the Pilgrims, but the Puritans, who wrote of establishing a New Jerusalem in the New World. The Pilgrims arrived from Holland via Plymouth, England. About 50 of the passengers on the Mayflower were Pilgrims, a religious separatist group that had been living in Holland but found little economic opportunity there. The other half of the passengers were called "strangers" by the Pilgrims. Most of these were people who sought opportunity in the New World. Neither group's main reason for emigrating was religious freedom.
The Puritans came to Salem and then Boston in 1629 as part of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. The aim of the colony, according to its charter, was for it to be a money-making venture, not a city on a hill as the Puritans later claimed.
So, what does this have to do with Sukkot? I would love to believe that Sukkot is the origin for the American Thanksgiving, but there are two glaring problems with this view. First, as I outlined above, there is no clear date for when Thanksgiving began in the colonies and so to tie Sukkot to THE Thanksgiving is false. There was a harvest festival and there were days of Thanksgiving (remember these were fast days) but not a day that brought feasting and thanks together until about 1630. Second, while I find it entirely credible that the Pilgrims and even the Puritans would have used the Bible to help them establish many of their traditions, they would not have consciously taken a Jewish holiday and reworked it as a Christian one. In the 1620's most Englishmen, Anglicans, Catholics and separatists alike, were incredibly anti-Jewish. Even thirty years later, in 1656, when merchant Jews in London were allowed to stay after being 'outed' by their commercial and religious foes, politicians, preachers and public writers railed against the Jews, writing things like this:
"Therefore Jews are not fit for our land, not yet for our dunghils; but to be kept and cast out from amonst us, and trodden under foot of all true Christian men, while unbelievers.” - William Prynne A Short Demurrer to the Jews
I love discovering little historical gems as much as the next historical fiction writer, but the connection between Sukkot and Thanksgiving is not one of them. Why force a relationship where there is none? What purpose does this serve? Certainly it does not take away from Sukkot for it not have been the origin of the American Thanksgiving. Sukkot is a beautiful and historic tradition and need not be tied to Thanksgiving in order to retain its meaning in an American context.