Generic Gratefulness

This Thanksgiving Day recalls another Thanksgiving a few years ago, spent in happy hours with my children and grandchildren. Over turkey and dressing, I decided to quiz my eight-year-old grandson, as proud grandparents often do on such occasions. I leaned over and said, “Charlie, why did the Pilgrims celebrate the first Thanksgiving?” Charlie resorted to the obvious answer, as grandchildren often do on such occasions. He said, “They wanted to give thanks.” “And whom did the Pilgrims give thanks to?” The boy’s face clouded and he squirmed a little. “I don’t know—I guess they were thanking the Indians,” he said. “That’s what we learned at school.” I was aghast. Here we were celebrating a major national holiday with deep Christian roots and my own grandchildren didn’t know its significance. The real Thanksgiving story starts in 1621, in Plymouth Colony, Massachusetts. Life was hard for the Pilgrims settling in the new world, and through the first winter the tiny colony endured hunger and privation. Nearly all of them fell sick, and half did not survive the winter. But spring came, the crops were planted, and the first harvest proved bountiful. Governor William Bradford called a special feast to give thanks to the Creator. They celebrated for a week, along with 100 Indians they invited to join them. Let me make it clear: The Pilgrims did not give thanks to the Indians, they invited the Indians to join them in giving thanks to God—the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God made known in Jesus Christ. Days set apart for thanksgiving were a common feature of colonial life. In 1631 in Boston, Massachusetts, a Puritan colony faced starvation when a ship carrying food supplies was delayed. Governor Winthrop declared a day of prayer to God. On the appointed day, as they were praying, the ship sailed into the harbor. The day of petition was turned into a day of feasting and thanksgiving. Other thanksgiving days were held in Virginia, Florida, Maine, and Texas. One colony wrote into its charter that the day of their arrival was to be “kept holy as a day of thanksgiving to Almighty God.” Today we don’t hear much about thanking Almighty God. The holiday has been secularized; we are urged to conjure up a generic gratefulness directed to nobody in particular. When I realized my own grandson had lost sight of the Christian meaning of Thanksgiving, I knew I’d better do some homework. I pulled together information about George Washington, who declared a day of national thanksgiving in 1789. I tracked down literature on Abraham Lincoln, who declared Thanksgiving an annual holiday in 1863. And I sat down for a good, long talk with Charlie. As Christian parents we need to make sure we are passing on our religious heritage to our children. We can’t rely on the public schools; what they teach may even be a distortion of history—like what Charlie learned about Thanksgiving. So don’t assume everyone knows why you are gathering together over turkey and cranberry sauce. Make a point of teaching your children and grandchildren that generic gratefulness isn’t enough... that Thanksgiving means giving thanks to the one true God.


Chuck Colson



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