I love Thanksgiving. I love the time off and the time with family, but over the years I’ve noticed that Thanksgiving has not been too connected to much if any Christian meaning. Although there is a rich theology of giving thanks to draw from, the holiday itself seems a bit a drift. For many churches Thanksgiving is that short break before the hectic programming of Advent and Christmas.
Origins of Thanksgiving
Thanksgiving has a rich Christian tradition, a tradition that has been marked by the call for thanks, praise, repentance, and humility.
The first Thanksgiving proclamation was given in June not November of 1676 by the governing council of Charlestown, Massachusetts. The text of the day is mostly focused on the relative success of their war against neighboring tribes of Native Americans. Simmering tensions between the various tribes of New England and the English had resulted in a 16-month war. The first Thanksgiving proclamation was issued towards the end of that conflict.
It is not a surprise that Puritans were the forerunners of days of Thanksgiving in America. They viewed God as taking an active role in the history of his people. So going back to the 1500s, various Puritan and other Christian groups held days of Thanksgiving (one of these celebrations in the early 1620s has become vaguely stuck in America’s popular imaginations) to mark special times and moments of God’s work among his people. This is itself an extension of the traditions of scripture, to mark special moments in the life of God’s people with thanksgiving and celebration.
This view may seem a bit odd to us present day Christians, as we are much more uncomfortable assigning special significance to national, regional, or even corporate events.
George Washington started us on the trajectory which would become the present day celebration of Thanksgiving when he issued a proclamation in early October of 1789. The first national Thanksgiving Proclamation urged Americans to pray:
to the great Lord and Ruler of Nations and beseech Him to pardon our national and other transgressions; to enable us all, whether in public or private stations, to perform our several and relative duties properly and punctually; to render our National Government a blessing to all the people by constantly being a Government of wise, just, and constitutional laws, discreetly and faithfully executed and obeyed
The emphasis on pardon for national sin and transgression is particular notable, if not uncomfortable for the present day reader.
Thanksgiving became a truly national holiday in the midst of the Civil War. Regional days of Thanksgiving were celebrated through any number of states, but in 1863 Lincoln proclaimed a national day and issued this statement. Addressing his fellow Americans Lincoln also takes on the theme of repentance and sin:
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, tranquillity and Union.
Thanksgiving in its current form owes its legacy to legislation adopted in 1941, when the 4th Thursday in November becomes the official day of celebration. During that proclamation Franklin D. Roosevelt writes:
Let us ask the Divine Blessing on our decision and determination to protect our way of life against the forces of evil and slavery which seek in these days to encompass us.
On the day appointed for this purpose, let us reflect at our homes or places of worship on the goodness of God and, in giving thanks, let us pray for a speedy end to strife and the establishment on earth of freedom, brotherhood, and justice for enduring time.
Present Thanksgiving Day proclamations have taken on a far less Christian tone, even from notable and recent evangelical Presidents. Consider this one from President George W. Bush. The President urges Americans:
Our citizens are privileged to live in the world’s freest country, where the hope of the American dream is within the reach of every person. Americans share a desire to answer the universal call to serve something greater than ourselves, and we see this spirit every day in the millions of volunteers throughout our country who bring hope and healing to those in need.
And this one from President Bill Clinton:
Across this land as people gather together with loved ones to savor the bounty of the Thanksgiving Holiday, I invite each family, each religious congregation, each community and city, to celebrate your experience of the American heritage. Reach out in friendship and cooperation to the people of your hometown.
Shying Away From Thanksgiving
Although Thanksgiving has strong Christian origins it has a rather mixed reputation within the present day church. In part it is because we have a rather mixed, uneven view of the role of Christianity in forming American culture and political identity. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but the various strands of American life have given rise to many explanations and identities within the American experience.
Culturally speaking Thanksgiving has become that time when families gather and throw the football around. Families may or may not go through a process of giving thanks, though there is enough of an emphasis where undoubtedly some think about what they are thankful for. Politically speaking Thanksgiving has not had the same cache apart from a time of national crisis. Probably not since World War II has Thanksgiving taken on a national moment of thankfulness for provision through uncertain times.
Of late the holiday is all marked by the start of the Christmas shopping season. It is the weekend where you can get a jump start of the many hot item sales.
Even without the tie to culture and politics, American Christians ought not to resist re-Christening the holiday for the modern moment. A season to give thanks for provision and the goodness of the Lord is always right and good. A season for repentance and humility is also befitting a day of thanks. In the midst of joy and in the midst of pain, it is good and right to give thanks for what is given.
In that realm I offer this prayer for Thanksgiving:
Father God, the author of light and life we give you thanks for giving us the abundant life found in your son our Lord Jesus Christ. Grant us this Thanksgiving the eyes to see your goodness and provision in our lives. We thank you for our creation and perseverance. Lord we repent for our sins, debts, transgressions, and wayward tendencies. Have mercy on us Lord Jesus.
In seasons of abundance or scarcity, joys or sorrows, mourning or rejoicing, thanksgiving or grieving, we ask that you would help us trust you and know you most holy Trinity. In the days ahead grant us a deeper knowledge of you in our lives so that we might be a people set aside for your purposes in the world. We ask these things through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.