In less than two weeks, we'll celebrate Thanksgiving. It is interesting to note that it wasn't until our nation was at war, the Civil War to be exact, that our Thanksgiving holiday was officially recognized by the U.S. Congress.
It had started in the small Plymouth Colony in 1621 when the English Pilgrims feasted with members of the Wampanoag Indians who brought gifts of food as a gesture of goodwill. The custom grew in various colonies as a means of celebrating the fall harvest. In 1777, more than 100 years later, the Continental Congress proclaimed another national day of Thanksgiving after the American Revolution victory at the Battle of Saratoga. However, it was 12 years later that George Washington, our first President, proclaimed another national day of thanksgiving in honor of the ratification of the Constitution and requested that the Congress finally make it an annual event. They declined and it would be almost 100 years and the end of a bloody civil war before President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed the last Thursday in November 1863, as "a day of thanksgiving and praise to our beneficent Father." I was a time when the butcher's list of causalities seemed to have no end and the very nation struggled for survival. It might surprise you to learn that it took still another 40 years, until the early 1900s, before the tradition really caught on. For you see, Lincoln's official Thanksgiving was sanctioned in order to bolster the Union's morale. Many Southerners saw the new holiday as an attempt to impose Northern customs on their conquered land.
Today, Thanksgiving is a mild-mannered holiday full of family, food, football and afternoon naps. Some even say its real purpose is to give us a day of rest before hitting the stores to begin Christmas shopping the next day. But that is not a realistic historical picture of Thanksgiving. Being thankful is more often born of adversity and difficult times. So many of the greatest expressions of thanksgiving have occurred under circumstances so debilitating you wonder how people could give thanks at all. It would seem the more reasonable response would be bitterness and ingratitude.
The Apostle Paul writing from a prison cell and probably knowing that he would soon die writes to the church at Philippi, "I give thanks to my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ." Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German Lutheran pastor imprisoned in 1943 for this political and Christian opposition to the Nazi regime, was remembered by an English officer who survived the prison camp as one who "always seemed to me to spread an atmosphere of happiness and joy over the least incident and profound gratitude for the mere fact that he was alive." On Sunday, April 8, 1945, after leading a small worship service for fellow prisoners he was led out and executed.
Today, we are in the midst of what some say is the worst economic period since the Great Depression of the 1930s. Businesses are closing, people are being laid off, home foreclosure is at an alarming rate, home values in some areas of the country have plummeted, retirement savings have been decimated, health care costs rise above the ability of many to pay and a costly war continues in a far off land few of us really understand. Yet, we still have much for which to be thankful if we will open our eyes and our hearts. Earlier in the month, we celebrated the privilege of voting in free elections and this past week we paused to give thanks for the freedoms for which our veterans were so willing to fight and sacrifice.
Maybe this Thanksgiving will be a true thanksgiving, more than a day of food and football, giving thanks not for our achievements and successes, but how God has been present with us, even now, when it is sometimes hard for some to give thanks. You see, thanksgiving is not a matter of counting your possessions; it is a matter of counting your blessings. And even in difficult times, our blessings are in abundance.
(The opinions of this article are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Inter-Mountain, the Randolph County Ministerial Association or the author's church affiliation.)