Every year, as close as possible to the fourth Thursday of November, 30 people pack into my parents’ dining room. Many of them only see each other once a year, but they pick up right where they left off. There’s a contagious feeling that people want to be there and are genuinely investing themselves in the lives of others around the table.
Snacks come out at 4pm. Dinner comes out at 5, just in time for everyone to realise they’ve eaten too much already.
There are no gifts. There are no complaints or conflicts. Just an abundance of food and constant chatter. And sometimes football.
Before the desserts arrive, there is a chance to thank God for the blessings of the previous year. Not just as a passing comment or the first sentence of a prayer, but a real reflection on all the things that are so clearly gifts from God.
The origins of the Thanksgiving tradition are fascinating and a little complicated …
This week Thanksgiving was celebrated in the United States (as well as in Canada, Grenada, Saint Lucia and Liberia). The origins of the Thanksgiving tradition are fascinating and a little complicated. Although it wasn’t really the ‘first’ Thanksgiving celebration, Americans usually think of the celebration at Plymouth in the early 1620s as the original.
After the Pilgrim settlers landed at Plymouth, a brutal winter wiped out half of them. The land was abandoned after a disease had tragically killed all of the Patuxet Indians. All, that is, except Squanto. Squanto knew English and taught the Pilgrims vital skills.
The leader of another Native tribe enduring the same plague, the Wampanoags, gave food to the ill-supplied settlers during the winter.
But after the harvest, the natives heard gunfire. They approached the Pilgrims, fearing war. Instead, they were welcomed to join in celebration, bringing their own food to share.
Two years later, after a nearly catastrophic drought, William Bradford recounted how rain and fair weather, sent by the blessing of the Lord, “caused a fruitful and liberal harvest, to no small comfort and rejoicing.” In thankfulness for this mercy, the Pilgrims “set apart a day of thanksgiving”.
So Thanksgiving began in the wake of deadly winter, plague and drought. After years of the Covid pandemic, it’s hard to imagine us having the same reaction. When the rain came, the Pilgrims responded not, as I suspect I would, with an entitled, “Finally!” They responded with joyful thanks.
The apostle Paul was insistent: for Christians, gratitude is not an optional extra.
I think if we’re honest we tend to think that things should go right. And, of course, it’s natural and right to ask why God allows things to go so wrong. The Psalms are full of examples. But it’s also natural and right to acknowledge that whenever things go right, it is because God is at work.
In fact, the apostle Paul was insistent: for Christians, gratitude is not an optional extra. He instructs his partner churches to “overflow with thankfulness” (Col 2:7), to “always give thanks to God the Father for everything” (Eph 5:20), to “give thanks in all circumstances“. Because every good thing comes from God, we always have plenty to thank God for, no matter the circumstances. We were made to receive his gifts with gratitude.
In this area, scientific literature increasingly reflects what Christians have experienced for millennia: gratitude is good for you. Recent studies indicate that believers who express gratitude towards God report feeling more hopeful, optimistic and satisfied. They experience fewer episodes of depression and more effective recovery from trauma, as well as better physical and mental health during and after acutely stressful situations, like personal illness or the death of a loved one. Gratitude to God accurately predicts spiritual wellbeing and confidence in God’s existence.
Gratitude makes us joyful in good times and content in hard ones, able to endure suffering with better mental and physical health and a greater sense of God’s presence and help.
In fact, a leading research team in the study of Gratitude to God says this: “As the positive response to benevolence, gratitude is perhaps the quintessential positive trait, an amplifier of goodness in oneself, the world and others.”
It’s remarkably easy to forget to be thankful, despite living in one of the most prosperous countries in the world.
But if we all know gratitude is good for us, why do we find it so tricky? I suspect at least part of the answer is that being thankful requires us to acknowledge that what we have is a gift. We all hear from loud voices, both around us and within us, that good things simply come from hard work. If things go well, it’s because we’ve earned it.
There are at least two issues with this self-centred instinct of ours. First, generally, if things go poorly, we’re happy to concede that a lot is out of our control! Second, it’s often true that good things come from hard work. But hard work is itself a good thing – a gift from God! In this sense, nothing truly comes from us, but ultimately from him.
It’s remarkably easy to forget to be thankful, despite living in one of the most prosperous countries in the world. In fact, it often seems that the more reason we have to be thankful, the more we forget to be. But for Christians, thankfulness should be second nature. After all, the Christian story more than any other is about free gifts.
God freely created the world and freely sustains it. He freely gives each of us life. He freely gave his word to us. He freely gives us countless daily gifts of rain and sun, sleep and energy, laughter and focus. And, at the greatest possible cost, he freely gave his son for us. If you, like me, rarely offer God the thanks he deserves, keep your eyes on the Gospel of Jesus. The more fully we comprehend and live out that story, the more thankful we will be to God for all his gifts to us in Christ. Because in the Gospel we see pure grace. In the Gospel we see the greatest gift given to the least deserving. In the Gospel we see the God of all grace, who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all, demonstrating that he will also, along with him, graciously give us all things (Romans 8:32).
Why not take some time at dinner tonight to thank God for his gifts to you this year? Because thanksgiving isn’t just about being positive or receiving the benefits of a grateful attitude. Thanksgiving is a personal act of acknowledging God for the gifts he freely gives. A holiday based on that is a holiday we should all get around.