It might seem silly to ask if Jesus celebrated Thanksgiving. Obviously, he never sat down to a dinner of turkey and cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie. He never watched the Bears play the Lions on TV. He never had to listen to weird Uncle Joe talk about his very annoying political views—the ones everyone else in the family hates.
But the American holiday of Thanksgiving goes back to a feast in 1621 shared by the fledgling Plymouth colony and the local Wampanoag. That feast celebrated a successful harvest, and it has biblical roots in the annual harvest festival in the Jewish calendar, generally called the Feast of Tabernacles.
And we know that Jesus once suffered through quite a miserable time at this feast.
About the Feast of Tabernacles
The Feast of Tabernacles is also sometimes called the Feast of Booths. The Hebrew word is “Sukkot,” which just means “booths.” In Jewish tradition, it commemorates the time when Moses led the tribes of Israel in the wilderness and they lived in tents or booths.
The Feast of Tabernacles is celebrated in the fall, and a large part of it is a harvest celebration. It comes shortly after the harvest of grapes, dates, and figs.
And before the Feast of Tabernacles there are two major holy days—Rosh HaShanah (the Jewish New Year), and Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement).
These holy days and the Feast of Tabernacle cover a span of a bit more than three weeks.
Jesus at the Feast of Tabernacles
We know that Jesus celebrated the Feast of Tabernacles, because the gospel of John tells us explicitly that Jesus went there one year. This probably happened in the final year of his life, about six months before he was crucified. You can read the whole episode in John 7.
It’s quite a long passage, so I’ll summarize it. Shortly before the Jewish New Year, Jesus and his brothers were talking about going to Jerusalem for the Feast of Tabernacles. (Jesus had four brothers, and if you want to know more about them, you can read my blog post The Mysterious Brothers of Jesus.)
His brothers urged Jesus to go to Jerusalem. They thought he had plans to be a military leader, and Jerusalem was obviously the place to be for any budding insurrectionist. If you want to call up an army, you need a large crowd of angry people, and Jesus’s brothers thought that there was no better place to find them than Jerusalem at the Feast of Tabernacles. So they told him to go.
But Jesus said no, he wasn’t going. So his brothers left for Jerusalem in a huff. It’s not clear whether his mother went with his brothers or stayed behind with Jesus in Galilee. But it seems likely that it was a family tradition to go to Jerusalem for both the Feast of Tabernacles in the fall and Passover in the spring, so it’s quite plausible she went with his brothers.
This year, Jesus broke the family tradition. It seems very likely that his brothers were angry about this. Like all Jews of that time, they chafed under the hard boot of Roman oppression on their necks. Like most Jews of that time, they were looking for a military solution to the problem.
There were two popular theories on how to crush the Romans. You can read about those two theories in my blog post Jesus and the Third Way of Salvation. I’ll summarize briefly here:
- Some Jews of the time wanted a military leader (“the Messiah”) to raise up an army and fight the Romans and kill them all. They took their lead from various prophecies in the Hebrew Bible.
- Others wanted a powerful angelic figure (“the Son of Man”) to come down from heaven and fight the Romans and kill them all. They took their lead from the book of Daniel in the Bible, and from various other apocalyptic writings, like the book of Enoch.
Jesus and His Weird Politics
But Jesus had a different political point of view. Like everybody else, he didn’t like the way Rome oppressed Judea.
But unlike most of his countrymen, Jesus didn’t think a military solution was the answer. Jesus had a very weird idea about how to deal with enemies.
Like his countrymen, Jesus wanted to destroy the enemies of Judea. But his countrymen wanted to destroy their enemies by killing them. Whereas Jesus wanted to destroy them by loving them and thereby turning them into friends.
It’s perfectly natural to want to kill your enemies. That’s a time-honored solution that’s been exceptionally popular for thousands of years. And the end result is war, destruction, and death. Every time. On both sides of the battlefield.
It’s incredibly unnatural to love your enemies. That just seems dumb. It makes for unpopular politics. But that’s what Jesus said was the right political strategy. And the very natural result was that a lot of people hated him.
Jesus Went to the Feast of Tabernacles Late
Picking up the story of John 7, we find that Jesus wound up going to Jerusalem after all. He had told his brothers he wasn’t going. But after they left, he changed his mind. The gospel of John doesn’t explain why. We can make guesses, but I won’t do that here.
I’ll just note that Jesus got to Jerusalem late. Probably well after the New Year. Possibly after the Day of Atonement. I’m guessing he got there in time for the actual Feast of Tabernacles, which comes about two weeks after the New Year and runs on for a full week.
Now imagine what it was like for Jesus and his family to sit down to a nice family meal together. The tension must have been thick in the air. All his brothers had told him to come and make a name for himself. He told them he wasn’t coming. Then he showed up anyway. And he made the wrong kind of name for himself. Spouting weird ideas about loving the enemy.
Weird Uncle Joe
What was that like? You can easily imagine it from your own experience. Think about that time your weird Uncle Joe launched into his pet political theory right during the pumpkin pie. Remember how awkward that was? Everyone just wanted weird Uncle Joe to shut up, but he kept talking.
Jesus was in the exact same place as weird Uncle Joe. Jesus was the one person in the family with the outlandish political views. Jesus made his whole family uncomfortable. It must have been an absolutely miserable feast.
When you know that, you can see just how strange it was that later on, his brothers came around to his side. It probably didn’t happen until after he was crucified by those very Roman enemies that he urged people to love. After he was reported to be seen again alive by some of his followers.
But oddly enough, one of those who reported seeing Jesus after his death was his brother James. James went on to lead the Jesus Movement in Jerusalem for another three decades after the death of Jesus. And James ultimately was murdered for saying just the sort of things Jesus said. Those weird ideas about loving your enemies. If you want to know more about James, you can read my blog post James, the Brother of Jesus.
I wish you a Happy Thanksgiving and a peaceful end to the year.