In October of 1621, ninety Native Americans and fifty-five Pilgrims gathered for a three-day harvest celebration to which we have come to know it as “the first thanksgiving”. As children we would make pilgrim hats and feather head bands and reenact this meeting as such a happy and wonderful sign of brotherly love and unity. We would learn that thankfulness can be a powerful force to bring people together.
That is why it was disappointing for me to learn that the first thanksgiving didn’t really happen that day - many days of thanksgiving had been celebrated before. The buckle hats of pilgrims are totally made up, and the images of Native Americans we have seen of the first thanksgiving are not accurate and represent Native Americans from the West Plains not the North East. In fact, much of the details of what we thought about that day from the clothing to the food that they ate was more folklore than reality.
I hope that doesn’t mess with the sanctity of the holiday for you. Many holidays have some blurry or even some sketchy beginnings. As Christians we reject that which stands in opposition to Christian faith, we receive that which doesn’t, and we renew that which can be transformed into something that glorifies God. We must figure out, by conviction and through faith, how to do this with Christmas, Easter, and Halloween. Thanksgivings origins may disappoint us, but we should be able to receive its core message of thankfulness to God with gladness.
For many Christians Thanksgiving is the kickoff of the holiday season. Even if you don’t want to hear Christmas Carols before, it is widely accepted that after Thursday, holiday music is going to be played, lights and trees, and all that comes with the holidays will be upon us. Like it or not here comes Christmas!
Recently I was talking to my kids about Thanksgiving and they said, “it’s okay, it’s just not my favorite holiday”. I almost felt sorry for Thanksgiving. I mean, it has no chance to really compete with other holidays that promise gifts, chocolate bunnies, or Jesus’ birth, or His resurrection. It isn’t about falling in love, or even turning the city fountains green and having a city-wide party. How could it compete? But even if it isn’t a super fun holiday, maybe we should take a minute and give it its due. After all Thanksgiving is woven into the very fabric of our national story…
In 1863 President Abraham Lincoln acknowledged God’s goodness to the United States despite being in the midst of a civil war of which he says was, “unequaled in magnitude and severity”, and that despite such evils, somehow the country had not been over taken by foreign power yet remained prosperous and growing in population. To this he says,
“No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy.
It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and voice by the whole American people. I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens. And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to his tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility and Union.
(In testimony whereof, I have hereunto set my hand, and caused the seal of the United States to be affixed.” Proclamation of President Abraham Lincoln, October 3, 1863)
President Lincoln staring at the darkest hours of the American story, saw that although things were hard and terrible, it might have been far worse without God’s mercy. He saw God’s hand and that made him humble. He saw a BIG God in the Heavens and our place as people on earth. He knew the pure essence of 1 Thess. 5:18 were it says, “give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you”. In that revelation, he proclaimed this proclamation and made Thanksgiving what it is today.
As we begin this Advent season of 2018, I hope that we could begin with his same insight, that this Thanksgiving would not only be the inauguration of the holiday season but that it would also inaugurate a season of unity, of thankfulness, of humility with perseverance, and of caring for those who mourn and suffer, for widows, and orphans. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “It is only with gratitude that life become rich!” What is more fitting than for thankfulness to be the inauguration of the season we celebrate the first Advent as we look with anticipation to the second coming of Christ.