I’ve been thinking about how our North American Thanksgiving celebrations might compare with the Thanksgiving celebrations of the first Pilgrims. The differences are striking. In fact, it almost seems the only thing they have in common, apart from the purpose of thanksgiving, is that they both involve gathering together and eating food.
Here are four characteristics of the first Thanksgiving that we might want to ponder as we begin our celebrations this week.
1. The Pilgrims’ thanks was deep and genuine.
The needs of the pilgrims that first year were so basic that they would have been driven to recognize how blessed they were when those needs were met. The pilgrims would not have just been thankful for the bird songs and the trees and the sunshine. They would have been thankful for their survival.
They celebrated with food because it represented God’s blessings on their lives. Without it they would die. We are so overindulged that we sometimes take the basics for granted.
Do we appreciate how very blessed we really are? Or is our thanksgiving just a formality? An empty tradition? Something we do with food this time of year before we decorate for Christmas?
It’s certainly good to be thankful for all the small blessings God gives us, but it’s also important to remember the important things.
2. They appreciated the instruments of God’s goodness.
The Pilgrims knew they could not have survived without their neighbors. They were, first and foremost, a village–a community of people. Their circumstances forced them to recognize that they needed each other to survive.
They didn’t eat their Thanksgiving dinner in their homes, in single families. They celebrated communally. They celebrated on equal terms with the Native people whose lands they were invading. Their inclusion of the natives in their celebration was evidence that they were thankful to, and for them as well.
Do we remember to be thankful for those whom God uses to help us survive in this world? Is our celebration of thanksgiving inclusive? Multi-cultural? Or is it a small, closed circle of only the people close to us?
3. Eating was a “side dish” not the “main course.”
The idea that the main purpose of the celebration was to stuff their bellies would have amazed the early Pilgrims. They probably did not overeat at the table, and they also probably never threw away leftovers. They would have considered over-indulgence a sin, and perhaps they were right. Big bellies have become part of our Thanksgiving tradition, but big bellies have a tendency to undermine a spirit of thankfulness.
What is the focus of our Thanksgiving holiday? Have we forgotten that the Thanksgiving turkey is a symbol of God’s provision, not just something we thoughtlessly gobble up?
Finally, and, most importantly,
4. The early pilgrims knew Who to thank.
To the pilgrims, thanksgiving was not just a general feeling of gratitude, undirected, wafted into the atmosphere with no real destination. They recognized God as the direct and only source of their survival, and He was the recipient of their gratitude.
The expression of gratitude in our secular society is all too often simply the celebration of an attitude. “An attitude of gratitude” is a noble thing, to be sure, but the original thanksgiving was not the celebration of an attitude. It was a celebration of the reality that God provides, and the gratitude was directed toward the Provider.
In our culture, the Source of all blessing is often unrecognized or ignored. When God is not acknowledged as the giver of all good things, the reason for thanksgiving–the heart of Thanksgiving–is missing.
Do we consciously direct our thanks to the One who is the Giver of all things? Or is our thanksgiving nothing more than a fuzzy, warm feeling–a vague attitude of gratitude?
And do we remember that our biggest blessings cost God everything that was dear to Him except us?
Over-indulgence in our celebrations has become a part of our Thanksgiving tradition. Should it be? Or is over-indulgence a sign that we have been consuming too much? Not giving enough? A sign that we’ve been wasting blessings that we should be deeply thankful for, and blessing we should be sharing with others?
This week I’ll be pondering these thoughts, and adjusting my attitude of gratitude so that it includes a deep spirit of thanksgiving, an appreciation for community, a smaller plate of food at the dinner table, and a recognition that God is the reason for this season, as well as the next one.
“Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after a special manner rejoice together after we had gathered the fruits of our labor. They four in one day killed as much fowl as, with a little help beside, served the company almost a week. At which time, amongst other recreations, we exercised our arms, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and among the rest their greatest king Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five deer, which we brought to the plantation and bestowed on our governor, and upon the captain and others. And although it be not always so plentiful as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so far from want that we often wish you partakers of our plenty.”
William Bradford, first Governor of the Plymouth settlement at Cape Cod.