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.