There is a common theme that I have heard echoed in conversations with grieving parents, books about loss, and my own practice as a school psychologist: Thanksgiving is hard. In fact, a day that is set aside to offer thanks can feel like a slap in the face to those who grieve. However, the history of Thanksgiving holds valuable lessons about what it means to give thanks in all circumstances and offers encouragement for those who seek to thank God, even in the midst of suffering.
Every American knows that the first Thanksgiving was celebrated by the pilgrims in Massachusetts to thank God for their harvest and survival (although, apparently which state really held the first Thanksgiving is debated).(1) From early childhood, Americans see images of crisply dressed little pilgrim children sitting next to adorable Native American children. All of these chubby children munch on delicious ears of buttered corn, while a perfectly roasted turkey waits to be carved. With images like these to feast our imagination upon, it is easy to forget that the real pilgrims and Native Americans were having a pretty rough time of it. William Bradford, the governor of Plymouth Colony wrote, “…in two or three months’ time half of their company died, especially in January and February, being the depth of winter, and wanting [lacking] houses and other comforts; being infected with the scurvy and other diseases, which this long voyage and their inaccomodate condition had brought upon them, so as there died sometimes two or three of a day.”(2) In fact, nearly half of the pilgrims died during their first year in Plymouth. When we think of the people who chose to hold the first Thanksgiving, we have to remember that many of them had lost dear family members and suffered sickness themselves. Others had left family behind in Europe and were likely missing them. All of them had to work for food, shelter and clothes. Nothing came easy. Yet, this group of people believed that God was so good that He deserved their thanks.
In my naïve mind, I assumed that Thanksgiving became an annual, national event immediately after the first pilgrim Thanksgiving. In reality, Thanksgiving quickly fizzled out. While most states celebrated a day of thanks, these were not nationally celebrated.(3) The writer Sarah Josepha Hale from New Hampshire began to push for a national Thanksgiving holiday during the 1800s. Known as the “Godmother of Thanksgiving,” Hale was widowed at the age of 34 and left alone to support five children. Her youngest child was born two weeks after her husband’s death. Despite her hardships, however, Hale felt that it was important to have a day when the nation expressed thanks to God for all of His goodness. According to Hale, “THANKSGIVING DAY is the national pledge of Christian faith in God, acknowledging him as the dispenser of blessings.”(4) Eventually, Hale convinced Abraham Lincoln to declare the last Thursday in November a holiday of thankfulness. This occurred in October of 1863, when the country was being devastated by the Civil War. Nonetheless, Lincoln felt that it was important for the nation to offer thanks to God. In his declaration, Lincoln wrote,
“The year that is drawing towards its close, has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so consistently enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added…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, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy. It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole American People.”(5)
Is it possible, that in the midst of our own sufferings and devastation, God has blessed us with gifts that are “so consistently enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come?” Can we push through the haze of our pain enough to see the beauty in the sun’s warm rays, feel the comfort of a warm cup of tea, or enjoy laughter with families? Can we begin to allow our spirits to say “thanks” even if it is only in a whisper? St. Therese of Lisieux who suffered from ill health and the loss of many loved ones wrote, “Prayer is a surge of the heart. It is a simple look toward heaven, it is a cry of recognition and of love, embracing both trial and joy.”(6) Can we dare to offer a prayer of thanks like that in our own times of difficulty?
In 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18, Paul wrote, “Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” Yet, the question remains, can we be thankful in our present circumstances, and, if so, how? I believe that the only way to do this is to maintain our focus on God. Earlier in 1 Thessalonians 5, Paul reminds his readers that Christ died for them so that they would be rescued from the calamities of the earth and receive salvation. For this reason, Paul told them to encourage one another and not to be surprised when tragedies struck. It was only after his readers had focused their gaze on God’s plan of salvation that Paul told them to “give thanks in all circumstances.” I believe it needs to be the same with us, because thanksgiving is the natural response to reflecting on God’s grace. As we prepare ourselves to celebrate Thanksgiving in the midst of a hurting world, let us fix our eyes upon Christ and dare to see the blessings that surround us.
3 Allegra, Mike. Sarah Gives Thanks, Albert Whitman & Company, 2014