I give you thanks, O Lord, with my whole heart; before the angels I sing your praise; I bow down toward your holy temple and give thanks to your name for your mercy and your faithfulness… -Psalm 138:1,2
Controversy or Hidden Gem?
Thanksgiving is probably the most religious holiday we celebrate as a culture and yet it goes by each year, for the most part, without pretense and without objection, why?
Unlike Halloween, Christmas and Easter, who have their origins steeped in pagan rituals and conversion attempts of the church, Thanksgiving is the only holiday both the world and the church seem to celebrate together without division.
Even with its consumerism, travel headaches, family interrogations, football imposition and all its other “trappings,” people around the world still cling to their Thanksgiving traditions and feasts. It’s almost like there’s some cosmic underlying force that wants to draw all of mankind together around the table to feast and break bread. What’s up with that?
What’s so special about this holiday that even non-believers and believers celebrate it? Could it be that it’s Hebrew roots are the tie that binds us all together?
Thanksgiving and it’s Jewish Roots
Although the public holiday of Thanksgiving in the United States was not officially recognized as such until 1863 by Presidential declaration, the church has traditionally held celebrations of thanksgiving and prayer since its birth. Each time the church gathers to celebrate communion (in Latin Eucharist) is a day of Thanksgiving. Remember the word Eucharist means “thanksgiving.” The first Mass of Thanksgiving was celebrated in the English colonies on March 25, 1634 by Father Andrew White, S.J. a Jesuit priest to the Maryland colony that settled at St. Clement’s Island. They were befriended by the native Indians of the Piscataway and Yoacomaco tribes. Interestingly, these tribes believed in one true God and offered a thanksgiving ritual of first fruits at their harvest time, similar to the Hebrew feast of “Rosh Chodesh.”
Just to the south, the colonists at Virginia had observed their first Thanksgiving Day on December 4, 1619, where their settlements charter required them to commemorate their day of arrival as a day of thanksgiving to Almighty God. Most Americans, however, associate this day with the Pilgrims and their journey across the Atlantic on the Mayflower in search of new land and religious freedom. Arriving November 21, 1620 at Plymouth, Massachusetts, they endured many hardships and were befriended by the native Wampanoag Indians who helped celebrate the anniversary of the Pilgrims arrival with a feast inspired by the Hebrew celebration of the Feast of Tabernacles (Feast of Ingathering or Booths). The feast is celebrated on the fifteenth day of the Jewish month of Tishri, according to the Scriptures, (mid-October, five days after the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur) at the end of the harvest. The feast lasted one week, during which time the people refrained from work and recited the “saving deeds” of God from the Torah. These “saving deeds” included the Jewish Exodus from Egypt, which the Pilgrims would identify with greatly.
At the request of Congress, President George Washington would declare Thursday, November 26, 1789, a day of thanksgiving and prayer for the United States. The Protestant Episcopal Church made a similar declaration in the same year, recognizing it as a liturgical day of worship. In 1817, New York State officially celebrated Thanksgiving Day and by 1859, the custom had spread to 28 states. In 1863, President Lincoln declared it an official national holiday. The tradition continued on the fourth Thursday in November until 1939, when President Franklin Roosevelt moved it one week earlier to help businesses by lengthening the Christmas shopping period. Congress officially recognized the fourth Thursday of November as a federal holiday in 1941. Many other countries celebrate Thanksgiving as a national holiday too, Canada, Germany, Liberia, the Caribbean Islands and Japan to name a few.
A Universal Feast Day
It would seem from its history that Thanksgiving is one holiday we can all agree to celebrate, whether Jew or Greek, Protestant or Catholic, tribal or pagan, atheist or believer.
Gratitude is inherent within every soul. It’s a sign that there is something greater than ourselves to which we owe our thanks.
Perhaps the reason we have never considered banning this holiday as a national celebration, or even boycotting it on principals of faith, is because of the underlying principal of truth that is at work in its graces: When we gather around the table to eat, we must see one another face-to-face; we must acknowledge the image of God is made manifest in us all.
There is goodness in every face that gathers.
Whether we choose to celebrate in the traditions of the pilgrims and early colonists on this day, or we follow in the footsteps of the Hebrew faith each year at the end of the harvest, or we find a way to celebrate it each day in the breaking of the bread at Mass, we seem to all agree Thanksgiving is a feast worth celebrating.
No matter if we are at home gathered around a table or in a shopping line waiting with our neighbor, Thanksgiving gives us all a day to see God’s grace at work in every face we encounter and choose to partner with it to make our world a better place. This is a reason to celebrate.
It’s not about the turkey or the table, it’s not about the stuffing or the potatoes, it’s not about the pork or the rice, it’s about the Lord’s mercy and faithfulness in our lives to bring us to freedom.
It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. -Galatians 5:1
From the sojourner to the slave, from the cross to the grave, there is a Hand that is guiding us, whose mercy and faithfulness has brought us into a place of freedom.
And for that freedom, let every voice never cease to give you thanks, never cease to sing your praise.
Wherever there is true freedom there is genuine Thanksgiving.