On Tuesday evening, our mid-week church group enjoyed an American-style Thanksgiving dinner together. The Thanksgiving dinner has been a group tradition for a number of years now, although this is the first time our family has been part of it (we joined the group in January). It was a great time of fellowship and fun. We had a couple of real live Americans and a Canadian present, and I’m pleased to say that the dinner—complete with turkey, stuffing, corn bread, mashed potato, pumpkin pie and other tasty & filling dishes cooked by group members—received thumbs-up for authenticity!
Where did Thanksgiving come from? Many point to the “first” American Thanksgiving in 1621, a spontaneous outdoor celebration by the early New England settlers (the “pilgrims”) together with native Americans, prompted by a particularly plentiful harvest. Others point out that the tradition of holding a harvest celebration of this kind dates from long before European settlement of the Americas. Indeed, holding a harvest festival is a long-established English tradition; in England, the annual harvest festival is often linked with a church service in which prayers and thanks are offered to God for sustaining his people into a new year.
When I ask any of my American friends what thanksgiving is all about, I’m usually told it’s a time for seeing family, eating food until your stomach hurts, watching football, and just generally “giving thanks”. But this prompts more questions: giving thanks for what? And to whom? For many, the term “thanksgiving” just means being positive about the good things in life. For Christians, however, the term takes on a much richer dimension. The concept of “thanksgiving,” after all, implies more than an internal attitude. It’s a relational concept—it’s about positively expressing gratefulness to another person for the fact that they have been good to us and blessed us in some way. Christians know that all good things come from God the Father himself, and so we give thanks to him. The Bible is full of expressions of thanksgiving to God. The Psalmists are constantly giving thanks. Jesus gives thanks for food and drink at the feeding of the 4,000 and the last supper (Matt 15:36, Luke 22:17-19). Jesus also thanks God for hearing his prayer to raise Lazarus from the dead, a sign that all those who trust in Jesus will receive everlasting resurrection life (John 11:41). The apostle Paul frequently gives thanks and urges others to do so: both for physical blessings (e.g. Rom 14:6, 1 Tim 4:3-4), and also for the amazing spiritual blessings that God has given us in Jesus through his Spirit—inheritance, forgiveness, eternal life (e.g. Col 1:12). Paul is especially thankful for his fellow believers, praising God for the way that they have responded to the gospel in faith, hope and love (e.g. Rom 1:8, 1 Cor 1:4, etc.). Our prayers are to be full of thanksgiving (e.g. Col 4:2); thanksgiving is in fact supposed to be our default mode of conversation (Eph 5:4).
So I reckon an Aussie Christian like me can learn a lot from this festival so favoured by our American friends. We Aussies tend to prefer understatement and grumbling; we can look with suspicion at that American penchant for positivity. But “thanksgiving” is a thoroughly biblical attitude and mode of expression, especially for those of us who know the God to whom we can direct our thanksgiving. As Jean has rightly pointed out, thanksgiving is not trivial. Thanksgiving is a right and proper response to all the good things God has done for us, and it can take a lifetime to develop the habit. So I say: let’s have more thanksgiving in our lives together, all year round!