Starving, Going to War, and Giving Thanks

The images that come to mind with Thanksgiving are typically related to food: turkey, gravy, stuffing, a slice of pumpkin or apple pie. Family may also come to mind, along with the occasional Pilgrim. We don’t usually think of bloodshed, cannons, civil war, and patriotism. Yet these were the circumstances under which Thanksgiving became a national holiday.

As with other holidays, memory is vital—in order to properly celebrate, we must remember the reason for our celebration. Our national holiday of Thanksgiving has two origins. The first is with the Puritans, who came to the New World to escape the confines of the Church of England and consequent persecution from James I. Their Thanksgiving was not, as public schools teach, to thank the Native Americans for their help. They were thanking God, and invited the Native Americans to join in their celebration.

Growing up, I sat down with my family every Thanksgiving morning to read portions of Thanksgiving: A Time to Remember, a book which recounts the details of the Puritans’ first few harvests. They were difficult years—almost half the colonists died within the first winter. Their first hard-earned harvest, with which they celebrated the first “Thanksgiving,” was not enough to last the winter for those who had worked all year to grow the food, as well as the hoard of new-comers who had just landed from England with almost no supplies. Yet, true to their Puritan principles, they continued to praise and worship God for his blessings.

Due to reading that book every year, I know that Thanksgiving, like many American holidays, is centered around God. While I associate it with strong religious ties, I don’t automatically think of it as also having strong patriotic ties. However, the original purpose of Thanksgiving was for both religion and patriotism to be combined. This is where Abraham Lincoln comes in.

On October 3, 1863—in the middle of the American Civil War—Lincoln issued a proclamation, instituting a national day of thanksgiving to God. The proclamation itself is not long, but like his famous address at Gettysburg, it is powerful. Within the short text, Lincoln rightfully acknowledges the blessings of God, even in the midst of the devastation caused by the Civil War:

In the midst of a civil war of unequaled magnitude and severity, which has sometimes seemed to foreign States to invite and provoke their aggression, peace has been preserved with all nations, order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere except in the theatre of military conflict…No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gift 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 one voice by the whole American People.

Even when the fate of the United States was uncertain, Lincoln wanted to recognize God for his blessings and mercy upon our country. At heart, Thanksgiving is a holiday deeply rooted in the Christian heritage of those who have relied on God to pull them through—the starving Puritans, and the torn armies of the Civil War.

Recently, a professor of mine offered some profound advice: it is crucial for us to not pass straight from Halloween to Christmas, but to fully immerse ourselves in the celebration of the harvest. If we skim over Thanksgiving in our hurry to get to Christmas, we completely miss a season in which we can be grateful for the Lord’s provision and blessings.

We are facing different challenges in the twenty-first century than the Puritans faced in the seventeenth century or the Union in the nineteenth, but God is still good, and He is still with us. If American Christians could thank God through starvation, sickness, war, and slavery, we can certainly thank him through our own grief and struggles. While feasting is an appropriate—and self-gratifying—activity for the holiday, Thanksgiving is not just about sweet potato casserole and mashed potatoes. It is about giving thanks to our Creator, who in his rich mercy, has granted us the privilege of living in a country that allows us the opportunity of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Who Stole the Turkey? or Why Thanksgiving Should be Reclaimed

Merry Christmas! And it’s only mid-November. Or right after Halloween. Or maybe even mid-July. Sound familiar? This is the American commercial tradition, classifying and celebrating the season of late fall to early winter as the ‘holiday season’, but we really just mean Christmas for the most part. After all, we look forward to ending the year with that merry time of peace on earth and good will to all, which for Christians is just fine, so long as baby Jesus gets to stay in his manger on the church lawn without the secularists filing lawsuits. Almost any tension can be reconciled, in some form or another, in this happy time.

Meanwhile, the other major holiday of the season (before the New Year and besides ethnic holidays like Kwanzaa and Hanukkah) only gets remembered in the brief span of a week or two before it actually arrives. In that space, we think of turkeys and joyous/awkward family get-togethers where we stuff ourselves with magnificent feasts before rushing madly to the store for Black Friday sales on Thanksgiving afternoon. Not even the holiday itself is free from the looming lights and gifts, from thinking of what comes next instead of what is already here.

This is nothing new. After all, it’s difficult to give thanks when so much misery falls on us in the world, like being stuck with last year’s gadget. Or, more seriously, our lives could have been ruined by hurricanes, fires, tornadoes, and disintegrating health care laws. It’s also hard to get into the spirit of a holiday, beyond food and family, when the mythical side of it involves a group of Protestant white Europeans that over three centuries ago celebrated safely arriving to a wilderness continent, feasting for days with a group of Native Americans. Santa just seems more inviting than such distant history, which might not have happened anyway.

However, there is more to it than just the Pilgrims. After all, the actual holiday was not instituted until the time of the Civil War. Abraham Lincoln, like many of the Revolutionary Fathers (including Washington), often proclaimed that the nation should pray for God’s blessing. In Lincoln’s time, he encouraged prayer specifically for the endeavor to reunite the country and to thank God for the blessings He was giving in the midst of the sufferings, and even to ask His forgiveness for the sins that incurred the scourge of bloody war. Such language is totally foreign to a modern society that largely disapproves of being asked to participate in religious ceremony, unless they are allowed to follow whatever ceremony they choose.

While Lincoln certainly wasn’t one to compel a sectarian understanding of his holiday, he was expressing a generally Christian one. In the first proclamation (on August 12, 1861) among several that led to the official Thanksgiving, he declared:

…it is fit and becoming in all people, at all times, to acknowledge and revere the Supreme Government of God; to bow in humble submission to His chastisements; to confess and deplore their sins and transgressions in the full conviction that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom; and to pray, with all fervency and contrition, for the pardon of their past offences, and for a blessing upon their present and prospective action…

All of which an average American living in 2013 will not readily believe. The idea that our nation celebrates a day to humbly come before God, to ask forgiveness of sin and recognize His superiority, would strike the casual observer as the most radical, fundamentalist, right-wing distortion of American culture.

That’s why we have turkeys and food, so that the giving of thanks turns into a general good will, spread among our loved ones, rather than the uncomfortable religious intentions of its founder, Lincoln. The spiritual overtone to Christmas is much easier to forget when the holiday results in receiving new possessions rather than striking a pose of contentment with what we already have. The focus of Thanksgiving may not be wholly stripped of a graceful posture, but it does seem particularly dimmed when Yuletide themed ads roll out the beginning of November, and Black Friday gobbles up more and more, until it doesn’t seem far-fetched if we just skip the formality altogether and end up with a Black Thursday.

More importantly, Thanksgiving was intended to bring people together, and our divisive self-minded culture is not inclined to find reasons, much less religious ones, for reconciling with fellow Americans, beyond the family. On October 3, 1863 Lincoln gave another proclamation wherein, speaking about similar objects of gratitude, he says, “It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently, and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole American People.” He saw the holiday as a means to unify the people, one of his greater goals during the fractious war he navigated, but that need sounds hollow to the 21st century Americans who are bitterly divided on race, culture, and politics. The Macy’s parade might bring New Yorkers together, but the spirit of national union is far from Thanksgiving or even the festive ‘peace on earth’ conclusion of the year.

With that in mind, it may be the perfect time for Christians to reclaim Thanksgiving, for themselves and for their secular neighbors, as it was intended. Believers, in their own personal celebration, can remember the godly heritage of their forbears, supplanting the ambiguous reasons behind its holiday traditions. Furthermore, we can remind others that Christmas music shouldn’t start until December 1st, or Black Friday at the earliest. We can also use Thanksgiving to reach out to those whom we might otherwise avoid, because they are pro- this or anti- that, and by so doing begin to heal the cultural scars and pave the way for unbelievers to receive the hopeful message of that baby who comes next on the calendar.

An Open Letter To Mohamed Abdel Moniem El-Sawy

An open letter to Mohamed Abdel Moniem El-Sawy:

I must admit, I don’t understand everything about the different segments of your Islamic faith—anymore than I understand everything about all the different denominations of Christianity. But they say actions speak louder than words, and I do understand that you and thousands of other Muslims in Egypt were willing to put aside differences in creed to unite for the sake of peace in your nation.

Thank you for being willing to protect the Coptic Christians in Egypt who were afraid for their lives this Christmas. You put yourselves in very real danger when you offered yourselves as “human shields.” Fortunately, the deadly New Years’ Eve attack was not repeated, and no one was hurt.  Thank you, all the same, for being willing to sacrifice yourselves for my Christian brothers and sisters.

I admire the theme emerging from your actions: “We either live together, or we die together” for indeed, these were no mere words. You were willing to literally put your life on the line in support of your fellow Egyptians, despite the religious differences which can so easily separate neighbors.

Just as we Americans learned from Abraham Lincoln that a house divided against itself cannot stand, the world can learn much the same from your actions last Thursday. We do not have to be threatened by all of our differences, and it’s good to be reminded that, for the sake of a nation, people will act on the courage of their convictions. There is much here to be admired.

Thank you.

Editors note: We offer our sincere condolences for the families of those who were shot on an Egyptian train today.

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