A uniquely American holiday, this “Thanksgiving.”
In 2019 America, the last Thursday in November in the United States is set aside for food, family, and these days, football.
But more than 400 years ago, stories of the “first Thanksgivings” in North America tell very different tales.
The remaining Mayflower settlers celebrated surviving a harrowing year of unforgiving conditions during the traditional “first Thanksgiving” in 1621 in Plymouth, Massachusetts. A little farther south, Virginia settlers enduring similar hardships held their “thanksgiving” at a place called Berkeley Hundred (later Berkeley Plantation) two years earlier. After all, Virginia settlers founded Jamestown, just southeast of Berkeley Hundred, almost 12 years before the Mayflower’s passengers ever set foot on Plymouth Rock. Remember Pocahontas and Capt. John Smith? Yes, that was Jamestown, founded in 1607.
I’ve even seen a report that Spanish explorers celebrated a Thanksgiving-like holiday in Florida in 1565, fifty-four years before the Virginia colonists.
These days, none of us are celebrating the survival of harsh conditions in quite the same way as the settlers of hundreds of year ago. But make no mistake, we all have something to be thankful for. So instead of mindlessly eating yourself into a stupor this Thursday, for a truly meaningful Thanksgiving, ask this simple, and yet obvious, question:
What does it mean to be “thankful?”
In English, “thankful” is synonymous with “grateful,” which according to Merriam-Webster means “conscious of benefit received.”
Necessarily, if a benefit was received, there must have been a giver.
And the only “Giver” who could deliver those settlers, the One who calms storms, makes crops grow, and heals disease, is the God of Creation, YHWH, Jehovah, the Heavenly Father, the Lord Jesus Christ.
The idea of thankfulness runs throughout the Bible. Of the more than 100 references to the concept of “giving thanks” in the Old Testament, more than 70 use the Hebrew word “yadah” or “ydh,” meaning “to acknowledge what is right about God in praise; to confess; to cast.” How appropriate that Israel’s approach to thankfulness was focused on the very nature of God. Many of the Psalms now make so much more sense, like this one.
1 Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good.
His love endures forever. – Psalm 136:1
Paul wrote his New Testament letters in Greek, and the most common Greek word used for thankfulness there is “eucharistos.” In this word, the Greek language captures the idea of gratefulness to God for his grace and for his unearned, and unearnable, favor, an idea that easily carries itself over into English. After all, the root of the English word “grateful” is actually found in two words, “grace” and “full,” or “grace-full.”
In Phillipians, Paul encourages us to make gratefulness an element of our prayers.
6 Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. – Phillipians 4:6
The very next verse tells us why.
7 And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. – Phillipians 4:7
Who doesn’t want God’s peace?
But does the Bible say, “Thou shalt set aside one day in the fall of each year to be thankful to God for the harvest?” A successful harvest is certainly one event worthy of thankfulness, but to limit our gratitude to just one day a year robs the Christian’s life of its power. In fact, we’re encouraged to think much bigger.
16 Rejoice always, 17 pray continually, 18 give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus. – 1 Thesssalonians 5:18
So while we in the United States celebrate a day with that name, “Thanksgiving” isn’t just a holiday.
Giving thanks to God is a way of life.