Why We Need Thanksgiving

Every year Thanksgiving slips up on me.
Maybe because it gets lost on the calendar between the make-believe fun of Halloween and the shopping frenzy of Christmas. Or because it’s considered a second-tier holiday like Memorial Day or Labor Day—important celebrations to be sure but directed more toward niche audiences than universal ones.
Whatever the reason, the situation is unfortunate because Thanksgiving communicates vital truths that we tend to forget. It reminds us that faith is more enduring than cynicism, humility is a better way to live than arrogance, abundance is possible even in hard times and God can solve problems that we can’t.

I can’t imagine a more important message to the modern world.

You can’t separate America’s history from Thanksgiving faith

The Pilgrims started Thanksgiving with their first harvest, a miraculous provision by God that saved them from starvation. A hundred years later, President George Washington issued a proclamation for Thanksgiving as he stepped into the office of President for the newly created United States. The next century, President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed a National Day of Thanksgiving in a desperate appeal for unity at the lowest point of the Civil War. And a century after that, President Franklin Roosevelt made Thanksgiving a federal holiday in the dark years of the Great Depression.

Indeed, you can’t separate our nation’s history from the Thanksgiving faith that lies beneath it.

But it’s not just America—other nations also observe a form of the holiday each fall. Germany has “Erntedankfest” the first Sunday of October in recognition of the harvest season. For Japan, “Kansha no Hi,” or Labor Thanksgiving Day, commemorates workers and the products they make. Great Britain celebrates Harvest Festival in late September. Thanksgiving, it seems, doesn’t just reflect American values but embraces something more deeply rooted in the human soul. Maybe that explains why, as in America, religious services are associated with these other national holidays.

On Thanksgiving even an atheist believes in something beyond himself

Skeptics might claim that the religious aspect is a throwback to superstitions of pre-modern people about the divine origins of agriculture. I don’t buy that argument. 

I believe the opposite dynamic is at work. The yearning to celebrate the day among people of many nations is proof that there’s more to life than the material world. When sitting around a table filled with good things to eat and in the company of people we cherish, an almost irresistible urge to give thanks bubbles up in the face of the love and plenty the day celebrates. We find ourselves lifted—if only for a few hours—from the grubbiness and meanness that so much of modern life consists of. On Thanksgiving even an atheist believes in something beyond himself.

There’s nothing like the sights, smells and tastes of Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving has its own litany of traditions, practices and celebrations but for sheer oddness, here’s one curious thing that is somehow strangely fitting:

In 1953, food corporation Swanson overestimated how much turkey would be consumed on Thanksgiving and had to get creative with the 260 tons of leftover meat. Using 5,000 aluminum trays and an assembly line of hand-packers, they created a Thanksgiving-inspired meal with the aforementioned turkey, cornbread dressing, gravy, peas, and sweet potatoes. The dish was sold for a grand total of 98 cents, and in the first full year of production, they sold ten million of them, birthing the prepackaged frozen meal industry.

But this Thursday I don’t plan to do much thinking about the deeper issues surrounding the day. Instead, like most everyone else, I’ll be caught up in the sights, smells and tastes around the table. The roast turkey that sets my mouth to watering. Sweet potato soufflé topped with crumbled pecans and brown sugar that makes me want to shout hallelujah. Fresh cranberry relish that’s closer to an addiction that I want to admit. And the gravy packed with turkey innards that my mother-in-law makes just for me. In a previous blog I give even more reasons that Thanksgiving dinner is so special.

Then, sometime later when things calm down, I’ll get by myself, take a walk and reflect on the people, experiences and blessings that I’m thankful for. The funny thing about the holiday, despite its lack of visibility on the annual calendar, is how the things I’m thankful for are probably the things most other people are thankful for. Maybe that’s why we need Thanksgiving. It gives us the opportunity, if only for an afternoon, to revel in the things that matter most.

What I’m thankful for

  • I’m thankful for a family that has endured through every crazy twist and turn that I’ve led them through. The Irish proverb has always been true of my wife and children (and now their spouses and children) that we live “in the shelter of each other.”
  • I’m thankful for the Bible and the unique way it has of giving wisdom for every question, circumstance and choice. Its words pierce my heart almost every time I open it.
  • I’m thankful for the privilege of serving as a pastor during a period of such social, religious and political change that, despite the challenges, holds such promise for the future of the church. The future has rarely looked so uncertain—but also so exciting.
  • I’m thankful for brilliant fall days when the trees blaze around the shore of Lake Murray and the sky is so blue and limitless that you can’t see to the end of it.
  • I’m thankful for America—in all its promise and with all its current problems—and the young men and women who have devoted their lives to serving and protecting our nation in a dangerous world. They are some of the finest people I know.
  • I’m thankful for friends from high school, college, churches through the years, neighbors and professional circles who make life interesting, fun and sustainable. Real relationships with real people make all the difference in our journey through life.
  • I’m thankful for a God patient enough to bear with me through all my failures, screw-ups, immaturities, insecurities and sins and provide all that I’ve needed, even when I didn’t know what exactly I needed.

We need Thanksgiving

So tomorrow as you enjoy all the day has to offer, remember that there’s more to the celebration of Thanksgiving than meets the eye (or taste buds). It’s not just about what we enjoy. It’s also about what we need.

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