Summary: A lesson on the roots of Thanksgiving, both the holiday and the act of giving thanks to the One who gives us His all.
A Psalm of Thanksgiving. Make a joyful shout to the LORD, all you lands! Serve the LORD with gladness; Come before His presence with singing. Know that the LORD, He [is] God; [It is] He [who] has made us, and not we ourselves; [fn] [We are] His people and the sheep of His pasture. Enter into His gates with thanksgiving, [And] into His courts with praise. Be thankful to Him, [and] bless His name. For the LORD [is] good; His mercy [is] everlasting, And His truth [endures] to all generations.
Comes now the season we know as Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving: that most unique of American holidays. From the time we are old enough to understand it, we look forward to it.
Now, to be sure, the food holds a special place for us. Think back to your past Thanksgivings and the way you couldn’t wait for your favorite dish, like turkey. Back in the old days, before the health benefits of it were discovered, getting turkey was a special event. Or maybe it was the pecan pie, the stuffing, the green bean casserole.
And then, of course, there were the side benefits of the holiday – seeing aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents, the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade, and the football games. Not to mention the 2-day break from school. Ah, to sleep-in.
Today, it’s different. Oh, we still have the food, the family gathered together, the parade, the football games, and even 3 extra days off from school. But, over the past decade or so, Thanksgiving Day has become just a strategic starting point for the start of the Christmas season. Now, Black Friday has almost taken the place of Thanksgiving. We do an awful lot of complaining about the commercialization of Christmas, but look what we’ve done to Thanksgiving!
Historically, Thanksgiving has been known as a religiously themed holiday; even the name itself implies that.
Prayers of thanks and special thanksgiving ceremonies are common within almost all religions. Most of them center around the harvest time. Here in North America, the U.S. to be exact, the day has roots in traditions established in England during the Protestant Reformation.
During the reign of Henry VIII the king and the Catholic Church had, might we say, a small falling out. The Catholic calendar called for 96 church holidays when people were required to attend services, stay out of work, and sometimes even pay for the celebration. Add to that the 52 Sundays, and it took a lot of time out of the work year. Reforms instituted in 1536 reduced the number to 27, but some it was good enough for the Puritans and other reformers. They actually wanted to eliminate all religious holidays, including Christmas and Easter. They wanted to replace them with special Days of Fasting or Days of Thanksgiving. These days would be in response to what the Puritans saw as acts of God. When disasters hit, Days of Fasting would be held. In 1611 there was a severe drought, and Days of Fasting were set. The same was true when the plague hit in 1604 and in 1622. On the other hand, when the Spanish Armada was sunk by a sudden storm in 1588, Days of Thanksgiving were proclaimed.
Our Thanksgiving tradition is traced to the Pilgrims and a 1621 Thanksgiving feast to celebrate a good harvest. As more Pilgrims came in the next few decades, they brought the tradition of Days of Fasting and Days of Thanksgiving with them. By the late 1660s, the practice of one Thanksgiving celebration gained some ground.
The early proclamations were made by church leaders, with civic leaders taking more of the task in the 1700s. By the time of the revolution, military leaders shared the duties. Revolutionary leaders issued several proclamations for everyone to give thanks to God for His guidance through those days.
President Washington issued the first nationwide proclamation. November 26, 1789 was to be set aside "as a day of public thanksgiving and prayer to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many and signal favors of Almighty God."
The tradition continued through the years, with states setting their own dates. By the early 1800s most states were using the last Thursday of the month. The first nationwide setting of a firm date was done by Abraham Lincoln in 1863. He was influenced by Sarah Josepha Hale, the lady who wrote “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” Mrs. Hale had been after politicians for about 40 years to make Thanksgiving an official holiday. Lincoln used the day to bring about a sense of unity between the North and South. Of course, the sense of unity didn’t fully come to fruition until after Reconstruction.
Here is how Lincoln’s proclamation begins:
"The year that is drawing toward its close has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added, which are of so extraordinary a nature that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever-watchful providence of Almighty God."