Summary: Every year the Thanksgiving holiday seems to be more and more squeezed out by Halloween and Christmas. But for Christians, Thanksgiving should be one of the most important holidays of the year.
I really can’t believe that Thanksgiving is this week. Anybody else feel like Thanksgiving kind of snuck up on you this year? Part of the problem may be that our culture seems to be squeezing out the Thanksgiving holiday. For years retailers have been trying to get people to do their Christmas shopping earlier and earlier. This year I was in Dillard’s on September 23 and they already had Christmas decorations up. That’s more than 3 months before Christmas! And in recent years Halloween has become more and more popular and so it seems as if Thanksgiving is getting squeezed out.
That wasn’t always the case and for Christians, Thanksgiving should be one of the most important holidays of the year. As most of you know, the celebration of Thanksgiving in America can be traced back to the pilgrims in Plymouth, Massachusetts. You know the story. When they arrived the Indians helped them plant corn and the following fall they had such a bumper crop that they had a big feast. Except that’s not exactly what happened. The truth is that the Pilgrims almost didn’t make it. In fact, more than half of them didn’t survive the first winter. And they didn’t have a bumper crop. In addition to the drought that year that affected their crops, Governor Bradford wrote in his History of Plymouth Plantation that many of the people refused to work in the fields and instead would steal the produce as soon as it was edible. He described the colony as riddled with “corruption” and with “confusion and discontent.” And yet they stopped to thank God.
The idea was not a new one. They had brought the concept with them from England. You see the Puritans were Calvinists. Just like Presbyterians. One of the characteristics of Calvinists, especially at that time, was the rejection of special church holidays. The Puritans in particular wanted to focus attention on weekly Lord’s Day worship and so they eliminated all church holidays, including Christmas and Easter. In fact, a few years later in colonial Massachusetts it was actually illegal for a business to be closed on Christmas Day. However, instead of the church holidays the Puritans held special days of Thanksgiving and Prayer in response to God’s providence. They did this every year.
In 1789, George Washington, at the request of Congress, proclaimed the first nationwide Thanksgiving. He wrote, “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 favour.”
So where did the Puritans and George Washington get the idea for a day of thanksgiving? From the Bible. The Bible mentions thanking God over 160 times. A third of those times are in the Psalms. As we saw with the Puritans, in the Bible thanksgiving is always a response to something God has done. For example, when the Israelites finish rebuilding the wall in Jerusalem despite the opposition from their enemies, Nehemiah leads the people in a thanksgiving celebration. Sometimes we even see people thanking God ahead of time. When Daniel learns that he will probably end up in the lion’s den because of his faith he thanks God. And Jonah prays while he’s inside the fish and promises to thank God and obey. And of course the ancient Israelites were to bring sacrifices to God as a way of showing their thankfulness.