What are you doing this Thanksgiving? Feasting? Watching parades or football games? Traveling? Shopping to get the jump on Black Friday? Giving thanks on the side?
How far we have come from the “first Thanksgiving” celebrated by the Pilgrims and the Indians. The feast was not an annual celebration for the Pilgrims, but it did set the example for later observances.1 The American Thanksgiving is a combination of harvest festival traditions borrowed from other cultures. Our founding fathers were mostly Christian, and some of their traditions, including thanksgiving for harvest, originated in Judaism.
The Jewish Tradition
In the Jewish tradition, the celebration of thanksgiving comes from the feast of the ingathering (Exodus 23:16-19), which evolved into the festival of Pentecost, one of the most important festivals of the Jewish year.2 Moses instructed the Israelites in Deuteronomy 8:17-18: “You may say to yourself, ‘My power and the strength of my hands have produced this wealth for me.’ But remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you the ability to produce wealth …..”
The Psalms contain many prayers of thanksgiving like Psalm 107:1: “Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his love endures forever.” Some psalms thank God for material blessings while others express gratitude for spiritual support. “The Lord is my strength and my shield; my heart trusts in him, and I am helped. My heart leaps for joy and I will give thanks to him in song” (Psalm 28:7).
The Jews of Jesus’ time celebrated festival of Pentecost (harvest), and Jesus probably participated. He modeled personal thankfulness by giving thanks before meals. At the feeding the 5,000 (John 6:11) and at the Last Supper, Jesus blessed the food as he served it. In other instances, he thanked God for guidance and protection. For example, when Lazarus was raised, Jesus thanked God before the miracle (John 11:41-42).
The American Thanksgiving Holiday
America’s official Thanksgiving began with George Washington’s 1789 Presidential proclamation. “It is the duty of all Nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, … to be grateful for his benefits, and humbly to implore his protection and favor.”3 Washington wanted Thanksgiving to be a “day of public thanksgiving and prayer,” but it didn’t catch on.
President Abraham Lincoln reinstated Thanksgiving in 1863. In his proclamation, Lincoln gave God the credit for the country’s thriving economy, even during a civil war. “No human counsel hath devised, nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God….”4
Franklin D. Roosevelt gets the credit for making Thanksgiving a permanent national holiday, but Congress made it official on December 26, 1941.5 Roosevelt’s 1941 proclamation quotes Psalm 91:1: “It is a good thing to give thanks unto the Lord” (KJV). By encouraging people to observe a day of thanksgiving and prayer during the darkest days of World War II, Roosevelt wanted them to be “inspired and encouraged to face uncertainties ahead.
Washington’s Thanksgiving would be a day of public thanksgiving and prayer. Roosevelt and Lincoln believed in it, too. Today, we celebrate in whatever manner we choose. We can attend community thanksgiving services or spend Thanksgiving Day serving dinner to the less fortunate. We can have our family over to feast, visit, and watch television. Why not make this a truly traditional American Thanksgiving by offering thanks to God, both publicly and privately.
Readers, have you written articles about holidays? Have you sold them as reprints? Share your experience by commenting on this post.
- The Dictionary of Bible and Religion, edited by William H. Gentz, Abingdon Press, 1986, pg. 796.
- http://www.heritage.org/initiatives/first-principles/primary-sources/washingtons-thanksgiving-proclamation (this link invalid as of 2-6-17)
Image source: http://www.morguefile.com/archive/display/786926