Growing up, school was always the place where I had to be right and have all the answers, while church was the place where I could use the tools from school and really question. It was not strange that when something disturbed me or challenged me, we were encouraged to question and seek understanding. I could not tell you most of those experiences, but one of my very first was over a section in the bulletin that ran every week called “A Time for Prayers and Thanksgivings.” This is what would be our “pastoral prayer,” when I ask about joys and concerns.
The issue I had was simple: how can we celebrate thanksgiving, if it was not Thanksgiving? In my 7-year-old mind, thanksgiving was only a day, not a mindset. My mother had me take this issue to the pastor. I could tell when I asked my pastor, he was delighted to answer. He took me aside and began a conversation I will never forget about what thanksgiving was, and why it is something we should practice every day. Over the years, I have learned more and more about thanksgiving, both the day and the lifestyle.
Thanksgiving, the holiday, actually originated before the European settlements in the Americas. Linked with the early reformation and celebrations of plenty, the Puritans would often have celebrated a Thanksgiving at the end of a good harvest, though if the harvest was bad, they would fast. Obviously, this meant that it was not an annual event, nor was it an event that required sacrifice—it was a celebration of abundance, from abundance.
Like many modern celebrations, Thanksgiving is riddled with problems. Part of the problem with Thanksgiving is the disconnect between the meaning and the observance. As this holiday became secularized, some of the most important elements got lost. By the time the United States was being established, Thanksgiving had already taken on many of the mythical themes that follow the day: that the Puritans in Plymouth, after failing miserably at farming, took what they learned from the Native Americans and were finally able to have a good harvest, and were so grateful that they invited them to this grand feast to give thanks.
That is a really nice story, and to be honest, most scholars think it is more myth then reality. In fact, the materials on the “first” Thanksgiving are so sparse, it is hard for scholars to pinpoint the exact date or year of that celebration. But even though it is a nice story, it misses the very basis of what the holiday is about, which is the celebration and thanksgiving to God for giving the resources of life to the community.
The myth of the first Thanksgiving is a hard one for many in the Native American community, because it is a painful reminder that as the Europeans came in, they worked to destroy the native people, often while using them for their own gain. That is one of the great problems with the overemphasis on the myth! Whoever made that story up was trying to show a conciliar action, and how two peoples could come together to make a community thrive. Unfortunately, it illustrates one of the problems that come with myths: the myth often overtakes the meaning.
It is important for us to remember that the “first” Thanksgiving was not really the first, so that when we celebrate the day, we do not celebrate the myth. Rather, we celebrate the meaning and use it as a reminder that we need to be thankful every day of our lives for the abundance that God gives.
As Christians in the Protestant tradition, and especially within our branch, we are called to live thankfully. We are called to be thankful for the gifts of life which God gave to us, and thankful for the salvation which God extended to us. This is why it is so important for us to see that thanksgiving is not a secular celebration for one day, but something that we should remember every day, and be thankful for the abundance which God gives to us.
Rev. Dr. Bryan James Franzen