Why Celebrating Thanksgiving is a Good Thing

1 Chronicles 16:8-12 gives this encouragement: “Give praise to the Lord, proclaim his name; make known among the nations what he has done.  Sing to him, sing praise to him; tell of all his wonderful acts.  Remember the wonders he has done, his miracles, and the judgments he pronounced…”

If you are like me, you probably grew up with a vague idea about the origins of the Thanksgiving holiday that Americans, Canadians and a few other countries celebrate.  Canada sets the annual celebration in October.  Americans gather for the day of family and feasting in late November.  By the way, some people might be surprised that Canada celebrates what many think of as an American holiday.  A bit of background will clear up this confusion. The first American Thanksgiving took place in 1621—some 150 years before the American Revolution. Though not universal, the British colonists in North America celebrated this event each year since that time, especially in New England. The Revolution divided Americans into two groups: those actively involved in the revolt against Britain or at least sympathetic to it, vs. those desiring to remain loyal to the King.  After the U.S. Independence, many loyalists migrated to those colonies in America still ruled by Britain. Today that would be Canada.  Hence the shared heritage of this particular holiday.

The Pilgrims were dissenters from the establishment Church of England. Sometimes dissenters were tolerated by the established Anglican order, sometimes they were not.  Most of us are familiar with the decision of the Pilgrims to leave England and establish a Christian colony somewhere North America because of the growing intolerance toward dissenters. The idea was to establish a new colony somewhere in the vicinity of Virginia, where the English colonists of Jamestown had been established since 1608.  The Pilgrims, as we now call them, embarked on two ships, the Mayflower and the Speedwell and set out in the late summer of 1620.  Not long into the voyage, the Speedwell developed serious leaks and the ships turned back to England, where the passengers who desired to continue to North America were transferred onto the already crowded Mayflower. During the Mayflower’s harrowing seven-week journey, it was blown off course and landed far north of the established Virginia Company –in what is now Massachusetts. This forced the 102 Pilgrims to create their own isolated community completely on their own, with little more than determination and faith.

The harbor into which they sailed in November 1620 was perfect for the little Mayflower.  Massachusetts Bay could handle many ships twice its size. The Massachusetts mainland had fertile soil and four spring-fed creeks with, what one colonist described as, “the sweetest water any of them had ever tasted.”  One of the leaders of the colony (and its future governor), William Bradford, wrote, “Thus we arrived in a good harbor and were brought safe to land.  We fell upon our knees and blessed the God of heaven who had brought us over the vast and furious ocean and delivered us from all the perils and miseries thereof.”

As grateful as the Pilgrims were, Bradford added that landing in a desolate wilderness meant there were “no friends to welcome us, nor inns to entertain or refresh our weather-beaten bodies, no houses, or much less towns to repair to.”  The region seemed strangely deserted, but they did find around 20 acres of farmland already cleared of trees and brush and ready for planting, although it seemed that no one had farmed the land for several years.

That winter —the winter of 1620-21 was horrific. This time frame was in the middle of what climatologists call the Little Ice Age that lasted from around 1300 to the 1800s. Once on land, the Pilgrims built shelters as fast as they could, but exposure and sickness soon began claiming lives. Of the just over 100 passengers on the Mayflower, forty-seven perished, including 13 of the 18 married women. That’s about 50% of the original group. No wonder that, as winter turned to spring, some of the survivors were afraid that they had made a huge mistake.

Then on a sunny day in March, an Indian man walked boldly down the main street of the settlement and uttered the word “Welcome” to the stunned colonists. His said his name was Samoset, and he immediately asked for beer. Unfortunately, the beer had all been consumed over the starving winter, so he had to settle for brandy.  Samoset explained that he had learned English from time spent on English ships. Apparently, Samoset had been captured from this region as a young man and taken to Europe as a slave. During that time, he picked up the English language.  After several years, he had gained his freedom and made the difficult journey back to his native territory on Cape Cod, where he learned about the settlers and their devastating winter.

In his conversation with the English, Samoset answered a question that had puzzled them: Why hadn’t they been attacked or even contacted by local tribes?  The answer: The land they were occupying once belonged to the Patuxets, a band of the local Wampanoag tribal confederacy.  It seems that the Patuxets had the reputation of killing any European explorers who happened to land on their shores.  But in 1616, four years prior to the Pilgrims’ arrival, a mysterious plague –possibly smallpox– had broken out among the Patuxets, wiping out nearly every man, woman and child. This sad consequence of contact between people of the Old World—Europeans and Africans who had some resistance to this plague with the Native Americans in the New World who had none, would be repeated over and again for decades. So complete was the devastation that the neighboring tribes had shunned the area, convinced that some supernatural spirit had destroyed the Patuxets. Hence, the cleared land on which the Pilgrims had settled was literally claimed by no one.

Samoset seems to have felt sorry for the Pilgrims and promised to send help.  A short time later he returned and introduced the Pilgrims to a lone surviving Patuxet named Squanto, who had been living with a neighboring band of the Wampanoag tribe. Squanto had also picked up some English from the occasional trading vessels that had pass along the coast in recent years. He agreed to return and live among the English to help them survive in this alien land.  When he realized the full extent of the Pilgrims’ losses during the previous winter, Squanto marveled at the settlers’ inexperience with survival skills which were considered basic to Native Americans. That spring and summer, he taught the Pilgrims how to raise corn, plant pumpkins, squash and beans.  He introduced them to the skills of refining maple syrup, picking medicinal herbs and harvesting beaver pelts —all of which were completely new to them. He also taught them to catch eels and fish, both for food and to be used as fertilizer.

The main bands of the Wampanoags were located to the south in what is now Rhode Island.  Massasoit, their chief, or sachem—was intrigued by the initial plight and later progress of these odd English people.  They seemed to learn and adapt quickly as the summer moved along and visits between the groups became more frequent.  The harvest of 1621 was bountiful, so the Pilgrims planned a three-day feast as an expression of gratitude to God for preserving them in the wilderness and for sending Samoset and Squanto to help them. As a symbol of their friendship with the Wampanoags, the Pilgrims invited their neighbors to this first Thanksgiving celebration in October of 1621. The Wampanoags arrived with deer and turkeys and the two groups shared hoecakes (made from corn), assorted vegetables, fruit pies and something new for the Pilgrims—popcorn. This pivotal event led to what would become 40 years of peace between the groups.

The contacts with the English settlers led to many of the Wampanoags becoming impressed with the Pilgrims’ character and their God. For example, during that summer of 1621, when, for a time, it appeared that the corn harvest would not survive a period of drought, the Pilgrims called for a day of fasting and prayer. By the end of that day, it was raining steadily, and the corn quickly sprang back to life. One of the Wampanoags who observed this seeming miracle remarked that the Pilgrim God must be very powerful because in the past when the Wampanoags pow-wowed for rain, it always ended up raining so hard that the corn stalks were broken down. But in this case, the Pilgrim’s God mercifully sent a very gentle rain that did not damage the corn harvest. Of course, this was that same corn harvest that provided the grain for the Pilgrims’ first Thanksgiving meal with their Indian friends and helpers.

The fate of Samoset is unknown, but what happened to Squanto?   The fact is, that without him, the Pilgrims would almost certainly not have survived the year of 1621. But while Squanto helped the Pilgrims adapt to living in the wilderness of North America, the Pilgrims gave Squanto a gift as well—the gift of faith. Most Native American tribes had a concept of the overall Creator of the World.  They called him Kichi Manido—or Manitu.  They knew nothing of his plan for world redemption.  From the Pilgrims Squanto learned of God’s calling of Abraham, his special relationship with Israel, and their role as the people through whom he would personally come to redeem the scattered nations of the human race. Though Squanto died within two years after meeting the Pilgrims, unfortunately probably from a European disease, in his last days he spoke of his gratitude of being able to know eternal life in the savior of the world, Jesus Christ.

So much for that summary of the first Thanksgiving on American soil.  For many centuries, days for giving thanks had been set aside among various Christian nations.  Protestants were especially active in proclaiming such days to celebrate various times of divine deliverance from enemies, disease or famine. They tended to model these thanksgiving celebrations after the Israelite festival of Succoth or Tabernacles mandated in the Bible book of Leviticus, chapter 23.  Even today, Jews celebrate Succoth to commemorate how God provided for the Israelites in the wilderness after their exodus from Egypt under Moses.  The Pilgrims obviously saw close parallels between their deliverance in the Wilderness of North America with that of the Israelites in the desert south of the Promised Land some 3,000 years before.  The celebration of Thanksgiving did not become a national one until 1863, when President Abraham Lincoln set aside the final Thursday in November for a national U.S. holiday.

So, as you sit down to Thanksgiving this year or in future gatherings, here are some questions to think about and discuss.

  • What is your most memorable Thanksgiving experience?
  • What do you look forward to most about Thanksgiving each year?
  • What is your favorite Thanksgiving food?
  • If you could thank one person today for their influence on your life – alive or not- who would that person be?
  • What are you most grateful to God for today?
  • How have you seen God move in your life this past year?
  • What have been your biggest struggles and successes this year, and how was God involved?
  • Share your experience of a prayer that God has answered in your life.
  • What is one Bible promise that you are standing on for the next year?

Is it a good thing to celebrate Thanksgiving?  Despite those who in recent years have accused Americans and Canadians who love Thanksgiving of being insensitive or Eurocentric, Thanksgiving is actually a unifying holiday.  It is something citizens of all races and backgrounds can enjoy and share in common.  After all, it was as inclusive as it could be the very first time it was celebrated here in the shores of North America.  Thanks for watching.  I hope this and future Thanksgivings are some of the happiest and most cherished times in your life.  Happy Thanksgiving!