Why Do We Celebrate Thanksgiving?
When you think of Thanksgiving Day, do you think of eating large meals, watching the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, or preparing for Black Friday? For many, these activities define the way we will spend this holiday, but how did Thanksgiving start and how did it become a widely celebrated holiday?
Many people imagine the original Thanksgiving dinner with pilgrims and Native Americans sitting down to share a “traditional” Thanksgiving meal. However, this was not the case. After landing in the New World in November of 1620, the Pilgrims faced a trying winter, and only about half survived to the next year. That spring, the Pilgrims were greeted by an Abenaki Indian who spoke English. He later introduced them to Squanto (Tisquantum) of the Patuxet tribe.
The First Thanksgiving
“Squanto taught the Pilgrims (who were weakened by malnutrition and illness), how to cultivate corn, extract sap from maple trees, catch fish in the rivers and avoid poisonous plants. He also helped the settlers forge an alliance with the Wampanoag.”(History.com) To hear more about Squanto’s amazing Christian testimony and his role helping the Pilgrims learn to survive, you can listen to Focus on the Family’s radio drama “The Legend of Squanto,” which can be streamed online.
In the Fall of 1621, the Pilgrims successfully harvested their first crops in the New World! To celebrate, the Pilgrims organized a feast and invited some of their Native American allies. The first celebration looked very different from today’s Thanksgiving festivities. For example, the feast lasted three days, and one of the main dishes was venison. While there is record of Governor Bradford sending men out “fowling,” there is no record of what type of fowl they brought back, though they may have returned with geese or ducks. Two years later, the Pilgrims held another Thanksgiving celebration, but Thanksgiving did not become an official holiday until much later.
The Birth of a Holiday
In 1789, President George Washington gave a Thanksgiving message in which he exhorted the people of the United States to “...unite in rendering unto Him our sincere and humble thanks for His kind care and protection of the people of this country...” Not long after, in the early 1800s, several states instituted Thanksgiving holidays. However, they were celebrated on different days.
In the midst of the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln established the Thanksgiving holiday as the last Thursday in November “as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens.” His words of exhortation were for those of the United States to “fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it … to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility and Union.” What a beautiful way to look at Thanksgiving Day as well!
Celebrating Thanksgiving Today
This Thanksgiving, try finding some ways to share your gratitude with those around you. You can cut out leaf shaped pieces of colored paper and ask each member of your celebration to write down what they are thankful for; these leaves can be used to make a Thanksgiving Day Tree. While at the dinner table, have everyone share what they wrote down; this is an activity that can involve the young members of the family.
Even amidst the ups and downs of our day-to-day lives, we can take heart in the fact that Thanksgiving Day has roots deeply set in offering thanks to God. As you make plans for your Thanksgiving Day celebration, remember to take time to thank God for the blessings in your life. Family, friends, this nation, our armed service members, our freedoms---we are truly blessed. As Thomas Ken wrote, “Praise God from whom all blessings flow.”
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