Thanksgiving: Its Origins and Its Lessons

This is the week that Americans from coast to coast cease their work-a-day activities and gather with friends and loved ones for "Thanksgiving." This is a time-honored ritual, observed by the overwhelming majority of the American population. What are the origins of this celebration and what meaning should it have for Americans today?

Thanksgiving is a combination of two long-standing traditions in Anglo-American civilization: the joyous harvest festival and the more somber declaration of a day of prayer or thanksgiving in the midst of some national crisis.

The origin of the present American Thanksgiving, at least spiritually and emotionally, harkens back to the 1621 observation of a thanksgiving and harvest celebration by the Plymouth settlers in Massachusetts.

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These English Pilgrims left Plymouth, England on September 6, 1620 for the New World. After a little more than two months at sea, they landed in what is now Massachusetts. After signing the "Mayflower Compact" – the first document to introduce self-government to the New World – they disembarked to face the harsh New England winter.

Unprepared for the brutal and unforgiving environment they faced, half the settlers died before winter's end. However, with the help of Native Americans, they planted crops and reaped a sufficient harvest to carry them through the second winter in the New World. It was now clear they would not starve. So these seventeenth century Christian Pilgrims held a feast of thanksgiving to God for His beneficence and favor. The three-day celebration commenced on December 13, 1621 and included many of their Native American neighbors who had been so hospitable and helpful to their new European neighbors.

Pilgrim Edward Winslow drew the following portrait of this first Pilgrims' Thanksgiving:

Our harvest being gathered in, our Governor sent four men on Fouling [bird hunting] so that we might, after a special manner, rejoice together after we had gathered the first fruit of our labors. They four in one day killed as much foul as . . . served the company almost a week. . . . Many of the Indians [came] amongst us and . . . their greatest King, Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted; and they went out and killed five deer, which they brought. . . . BY THE GOODNESS OF GOD WE ARE . . . FAR FROM WANT.

In 1777, in the midst of the American Revolution, the first "official" national Thanksgiving celebration was declared by the new nation that had declared its independence the year before. In October 1789, the head of the recently founded new Federal government, George Washington, issued the first presidential thanksgiving proclamation as a day for giving thanks to that "great and glorious Being who is the beneficent author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be. . . ."

President Washington went on to declare that Both Houses of Congress asked him "to recommend to the people of the United States a day of public thanksgiving and prayer, to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many and signal favors of Almighty God, especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness. . . ."

President Abraham Lincoln was the second president closely identified with Thanksgiving. There had been repeated calls for a national Thanksgiving Day observance in the thirty years before the Civil War, and in 1863 President Lincoln declared a national Day of Thanksgiving. President Lincoln made his declaration in the darkest days of the Civil War, in the immediate aftermath of the Battle of Gettysburg (July 1-3, 1863) and just days after visiting the haunting, still battle scarred battlefield at Gettysburg where he had delivered the timeless Gettysburg address.

In 1941 as the war clouds of World War II gathered ominously over the land, Congress permanently established Thanksgiving on the fourth Thursday of each November as a national holiday.

Thanksgiving has been part of our national story from our Puritan forefathers onward. Clearly, even in the darkest of days, during the Revolution, the Civil War, and a long World War, American have felt the need to pause and thank their God for His blessings and to invoke His protection and watch-care over our nation.

As we look around us, most Americans, at least those who are religious, understand that God has blessed their nation in incomparable and manifest ways. And blessings, it must be remembered, are "blessings" because they are unearned and undeserved.

Thanksgiving has always been my favorite holiday. To me it is the most "American" of holidays because for whatever reason, God has blessed us as a nation in unique and wonderful ways. When one looks at American history, one cannot help but come to the conclusion that more than fortuitous circumstance has been at work – no one could be that "lucky." No, God has blessed us and protected us in unique ways, and Americans of religious faith should take the occasion to give thanks to God for His blessings and His bounty.

As a Christian, I encourage all fellow Christians to undertake a spiritual exercise this Thanksgiving holiday. The Apostle Paul commanded us as Christians to "in everything give thanks for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you" (1 Thess. 5:18). I promise you that when you start giving thanks to God for the blessings in your life, God will keep calling new blessings to mind, and you will find that there are so many more things to be thankful for than you imagined. As you are obedient to this apostolic commandment, God will create in you an even more grateful heart and the grateful heart is the contented and peaceful heart. So, this Thanksgiving, I pray His peace be with all of you. God bless!

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