I love Thanksgiving, gathering together with family and friends, reflecting on God’s faithfulness, and of course, pumpkin pie. Often times, however, when celebration becomes tradition, the true meaning and even the celebration can get lost in the ritual. As we celebrate Thanksgiving in the upcoming week, I think it is important to take a look back at the history and origin of Thanksgiving in America.
The first Thanksgiving celebration was held in Massachusetts sometime in December 1621 during the Pilgrims’ second winter in America. The first winter had claimed the lives of 44 out of 102 of the original colonists. At one point, their daily food ration was down to five kernels of corn apiece, but then a providential trading vessel arrived, allowing them to swap beaver pelts for grain, which barely sustained them to survival.
The next summer’s crop was bountiful and brought some relief to the remaining colonists. Governor William Bradford declared that December 13, 1621, be set aside as a day of feasting and prayers of gratitude. Governor Bradford knew it was because of God’s grace and enduring love that the colonists were still alive. The Pilgrims, who were seeking religious freedom and opportunity in America, joined in prayer and gave thanks to God for His provision. They thanked Him for helping them find twenty acres of cleared land, protection from harm as there were no hostile Indians in that area, newfound religious freedom, and for God’s blessing of providing an interpreter to the Indians in Squanto.
Three days were spent in feasting and prayer. In addition to feasting, colonists and more than 80 friendly Indians, who added to the feast by bringing wild turkeys and venison, participated in games, sermons, and songs of praise during the celebration. This first celebration set in motion Thanksgiving as a day to give thanks to God for His gracious and sufficient provision.
In 1863, President Abraham Lincoln officially set aside the last Thursday of November “as a day of thanksgiving and praise to our beneficent Father.” By 1941, Congress ruled that the fourth Thursday of November be observed as Thanksgiving Day and became a legal holiday.
Throughout scripture, we find the constant theme of giving thanks and celebration of thankfulness. How can we, as followers of Jesus, not live as thankful brothers and sisters after His perfect sacrifice for us! As Romans says, while we were still sinners, He paid the ransom for our lives by enduring the cross and defeating the grave so that we might be reconciled back to our Father in heaven. We, like the Pilgrims, have a choice. In life, there will always be things we can complain about (the Pilgrims had lost many loved ones), but there is also much for which to be thankful.
The act of “giving of thanks to God” during our annual Thanksgiving holiday celebration is becoming increasingly overlooked and being replaced by worship of the food and experience as opposed to the worship due the Creator God of the universe! The gift of our Savior Jesus should cause us all to be thankful beyond expression. Just like the Pilgrims, we still have a choice to be thankful or ungrateful, which one will you choose?