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Thanksgiving was originally a fast, not a feast

Unsplash/Jed Owen
Unsplash/Jed Owen

One of my favorite TV shows growing up was To Tell the Truth. It is a classic guessing game where a panel of four celebrities question three contestants in order to discern which one of the three is the real expert.

The celebrities take turns asking the contestants about a subject, and then they try to guess which of the three people is the truth-teller. At the end of the show when the votes are in, the host asks, “Will the real (person’s name) please stand up?” So many times, I guessed wrong because the imposters were so good at pretending to be someone they weren’t.

When I think of Thanksgiving, I feel the same way. Today, Thanksgiving has become all about food, family, friends and football. As children, we were taught about how the English Pilgrims in Plymouth tried to survive the New World and Wampanoag Indians helped them grow corn in 1621. The Pilgrims thanked them and invited them to join in their harvest feast. Over 200 years later, in 1863, President Abraham Lincoln declared Thanksgiving an annual federal holiday, beginning an American tradition that’s still honored every year.

One word we don’t think of when it comes to Thanksgiving is fasting. In fact, if we were asked to come up with a word that is the opposite of Thanksgiving, fasting would apply. Believe it or not, Thanksgiving’s original roots were tied to fasting, prayer and repentance. Maybe throughout the years, imposters have crept in and prevented us from experiencing what happened during the real first Thanksgiving. But it’s true: the first Thanksgiving wasn’t about a feast as much as it was centered around a fast.

Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, America hosted public days when government leaders called the people to repent and beg for forgiveness for their wrongdoings. These public days were days of fasting and repentance, and then they were followed by days of what we traditionally think of as Thanksgiving: community and food. This cycle of fasting and thanksgiving was 2 Chronicles 7:14 in action: calling upon the Lord, being humble, praying and seeking God’s face. This was the real origin of Thanksgiving.

My favorite holiday is Thanksgiving because it’s all about being thankful, spending time with family and enjoying great food. Thanksgiving also reminds me to stop the rat race and be thankful for my Savior, family, friends and teammates. But I love it even more when I reflect over what Thanksgiving was originally.

I recently stumbled upon a compelling article by writer Eve LaPlante in The Boston Globe called “The Opposite of Thanksgiving.” She writes:

“But this modern version of Thanksgiving would horrify the devout Pilgrims and Puritans who sailed to America in the 17th century. The holiday that gave rise to Thanksgiving — a ‘public day’ that they observed regularly — was almost the precise opposite of today’s celebration. It was not secular, but deeply religious. At its center was not an extravagant meal, but a long fast. And its chief concern was not bounty but redemption: to examine the faults in oneself — and one’s community — with an eye toward spiritual improvement.”

Imagine what this Thanksgiving would look like if we made it a day of fasting, prayer, Scripture reading, worship and seeking God’s face! Instead of focusing solely on eating lots of food, watching too much football, taking a traditional afternoon nap and planning for Black Friday buying, what if we made Thanksgiving a spiritual day full of confession and repentance?

I am convicted and challenged to approach Thanksgiving differently this year. I want to create space for the original intent of this day. Maybe not fasting from food, because it might be disrespectful to family coming to our houses for Thanksgiving feasts, but I believe there’s something each one of us can do to reclaim the original intent of the holiday. Ask the Lord to show you if there’s something you can fast from this Thanksgiving, and set aside time to focus on deep prayer, confession and repentance.

I believe this new revelation for me personally will be a game-changer to my favorite holiday because I long for the real Thanksgiving to please stand up!

Instead of pursuing a full belly this Thanksgiving, let’s pursue filling our hearts by calling upon the Lord, humbling ourselves, praying, seeking God’s face and repenting. If we do, God promises us in 2 Chronicles 7:14 that He will hear us, forgive us and restore us. This Thanksgiving, I want to experience that blessing. How about you?

Dan Britton is a speaker, writer, coach and trainer who serves as the Chief Field Officer with the Fellowship of Christian Athletes and leads thousands of staff in over 100 countries. Dan played professional lacrosse with the Baltimore Thunder and has coauthored seven books, including: One WordWisdomWalks, and Called to Greatness. He is a frequent speaker for companies, nonprofits, sports teams, schools and churches

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