Why Celebrate Thanksgiving?

written by Dr. Bernard Mauser

Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. Philippians 4:6

Thanksgiving means different things to different people. Some say it is about food, family, and football. Others, that it’s a break from work or a time to stand outside of your favorite store to get Christmas gifts for a great price. Tied up with this celebration in history is the religious element of giving thanks to God for His blessings.

There are two things to keep in mind about Thanksgiving. First, there is the holiday that people celebrate around the world. Second, there is the command that Christians are to be people who constantly give thanks in every situation. Although the history of the holiday is interesting, the more important is the second. Christians recognize, as did our founders, Thanksgiving should be a time to thank the true Ruler of the nations. Let’s look at both the historical and the Christian background.

First, when you ask kids what they know about Thanksgiving they’ll talk about turkey and Pilgrims. The first Thanksgiving in the New World was celebrated with the Pilgrims in 1621. There are only two original sources that mention this celebration. We discover this report (using modern spelling) from Edward Winslow:

“our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after a special manner rejoice together, after we had gathered the fruits of our labors; they four in one day killed as much fowl, as with a little help beside, served the Company almost a week, at which time amongst other Recreations, we exercised our Arms, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and amongst the rest their greatest king Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five Deer, which they brought to the Plantation and bestowed on our Governor, and upon the Captain and others. And although it be not always so plentiful, as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so far from want, that we often wish you partakers of our plenty.”[1]

William Bradford adds, “besides waterfowl there was a great store of wild turkeys, of which they took many.”[2] We find the original celebration lasted three days and the menu included deer, fowl, and turkey.

George Washington issued the following proclamation of Thanksgiving on October 3, 1789 to God for his protection and the blessings God has conferred upon us as a nation:

By the President of the United States of America. a Proclamation.

Whereas it is the duty of all Nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey his will, to be grateful for his benefits, and humbly to implore his protection and favor—and whereas both Houses of Congress have by their joint Committee requested me “to recommend to the People of the United States a day of public thanksgiving and prayer to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many signal favors of Almighty God especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness.”

Now therefore I do recommend and assign Thursday the 26th day of November next to be devoted by the People of these States to the service of that great and glorious Being, who is the beneficent Author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be—That we may then all unite in rendering unto him our sincere and humble thanks—for his kind care and protection of the People of this Country previous to their becoming a Nation—for the signal and manifold mercies, and the favorable interpositions of his Providence which we experienced in the course and conclusion of the late war—for the great degree of tranquillity, union, and plenty, which we have since enjoyed—for the peaceable and rational manner, in which we have been enabled to establish constitutions of government for our safety and happiness, and particularly the national One now lately instituted—for the civil and religious liberty with which we are blessed; and the means we have of acquiring and diffusing useful knowledge; and in general for all the great and various favors which he hath been pleased to confer upon us.

and also that we may then unite in most humbly offering our prayers and supplications 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—to protect and guide all Sovereigns and Nations (especially such as have shewn kindness unto us) and to bless them with good government, peace, and concord—To promote the knowledge and practice of true religion and virtue, and the increase of science among them and us—and generally to grant unto all Mankind such a degree of temporal prosperity as he alone knows to be best.

Given under my hand at the City of New-York the third day of October in the year of our Lord 1789.

Go: Washington[3]

After this time, various leaders in America proclaimed different days of Thanksgiving to be held throughout the United States. Yet there was no fixed day upon which all the nation would devote to such an observance until a woman named Sarah Josepha Hale wrote a letter to Lincoln which implored him to make “Thanksgiving a National and fixed Union Festival…. To become permanently an American custom and institution.”[4] On October 3, 1863, Lincoln declared a national day of “Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens” to be held the last Thursday of November. It has been held on this day in America ever since.

Long before any of these celebrations in America, the Israelites had instituted peace offerings to God as a way of giving thanks. Moses instructed the Israelites in Leviticus 7 about these peace offerings in order to maintain fellowship with God. This practice continued throughout history in many nations as men have recognized both that God is the ruler of all the nations and that every good and perfect gift comes from Him. (James 1:17) The Thanksgiving holiday is an excellent time to remind us of this important outflow of thanksgiving that should be sewn into every part of every day. Let us never go a day without giving our Maker and Ruler both thanks and praise.

[1] https://www.pilgrimhall.org/pdf/TG_What_Happened_in_1621.pdf
[2] Ibid.
[3] https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/05-04-02-0091
[4] http://www.abrahamlincolnonline.org/lincoln/speeches/thanks.htm

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