In the midst of gathering with family and friends, indulging in a belly-busting meal and gathering around the TV for parades and football before getting a jump on Black Friday shopping, we often forget exactly what Thanksgiving is all about.
Yes, the name is Thanksgiving, but in the modern world that’s become just a word, like Christmas. How many people remember that it literally means “Christ’s Mass?”
The word “thanksgiving” means an expression of gratitude, particularly when offered to God. The holiday’s origin was a harvest festival in 1621, when the Pilgrims in Plymouth, Massachusetts, showed their gratitude to God for a good harvest.
We all learn in school about the Pilgrims and Native Americans coming together for that first celebration, but historical details are actually quite sketchy. However, we do know that the Pilgrims and Puritans regularly held Thanksgiving celebrations because they knew the importance of being grateful to God and showing it publicly.
President George Washington made sure that God was the focus of Thanksgiving when he declared the first official observance in 1789. He said it should be “a day of public thanksgiving and prayer to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many and signal favours of Almighty God.”
Other presidents sporadically designated days of Thanksgiving, but Abraham Lincoln made it official in 1863. He proclaimed that it would be celebrated annually on the last Thursday in November and, like Washington, he ensured that it was God-focused, saying, “I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens.”
In the intervening years, we’ve moved away from a day of public prayer and gratefulness to our Creator to a time that’s more about personal indulgence. Thankfully, even if the masses see it as a day to eat, glue their eyes to the TV and get a jump on Christmas shopping, you can keep your family’s focus on God in several ways:
Share Your Thanks
Use the meal blessing as a time for everyone to share the things for which they’re most grateful. In many households, saying grace on Thanksgiving means rushing through a symbolic prayer so everyone can tuck into the meal. Instead, make the focus on the One who made the meal, and the whole year, possible. Go around the table, having everyone share the things for which they’re most grateful, and have them say a heartfelt thank-you to God. Prayers are too often about asking for something, so Thanksgiving is the time to turn that around.
Talk about the True History of Thanksgiving
Kids equate Thanksgiving with Pilgrims in hats with giant buckles and turkeys made from hand prints. They don’t learn much about the spiritual aspect in public school, but you can pick up the slack every year at home.
Teach them why the Pilgrims celebrated, and talk to them about the holiday’s history with U.S. Presidents and its journey to becoming official. Use this as a tie-in to discuss other Christian holidays that have been diluted over the years. Pop culture removes the God-based meaning, so it’s very important to preserve it among your own family traditions.
Share with the Less Fortunate
As God provides for us, He also commands us to share with others, as we’re reminded in 1 Peter 4:10: ”As each has received a gift, employ it in serving one another, as good managers of the grace of God in its various forms.” Make it an annual tradition to find a way to serve others each Thanksgiving. Discuss it with your family members and have them decide on each year’s expression of gratitude.
If your family is lucky enough to have a sumptuous Thanksgiving meal, a great way to show your gratitude is to make a donation to charity or work in a soup kitchen. Bring a hot meal to a lonely elderly neighbor, or invite him or her to dine with you. If you want to take advantage of Black Friday bargains that start Thanksgiving night, add presents for kids at the local foster care facility to your list.
Attend a Thanksgiving Service
Christmas and Easter are the two big church-going holidays, even among Christians who tend to neglect their attendance for the rest of the year.
Most churches have Thanksgiving services at some point during the holiday week. Make attending one of these services as much of a priority as going on Christmas and Easter. Those are two days on which we celebrate the arrival and departure of Jesus, but Thanksgiving encompasses the fact that we should be grateful to God for everything, not just for sending His Son to forgive our sins.
Many Bible passages tell us it pleases God when we give thanks, like this one from 1 Thessalonians: “In everything give thanks, for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus toward you.” We often forget at other times of the year, so make Thanksgiving your family’s reminder.