The First American Thanksgivings

Why They Set an Important Precedent

In 1621, pilgrims at Plymouth celebrated a feast after their first harvest in the New World. It lasted three days and was attended by more than 50 pilgrims and even more native Americans, many of whom had given food to the pilgrims during the first winter. 

We call that harvest celebration our “First Thanksgiving” because, being pilgrims, they were accustomed to giving thanks for just about everything, and this first harvest was a big deal. 

Thanskgiving 170114356 small ABut there had already been other thanksgivings in North America—the Spaniards in what is now Texas in 1541; French colonists in the 1560s near Jacksonville, Fla.; and English colonists in Virginia several times in the early 1600s. 

Now we look back to that New England celebration as the “first,” perhaps because a couple of years afterward, it was ordered by Governor Bradford, and therefore became an official civic event.

Some presidents (like George Washington) promoted the holiday; others (like Thomas Jefferson) ignored it. Many years later, in the midst of civil war, Abraham Lincoln declared a national day of thanks to be celebrated on the last Thursday in November. Ever since, it has been federal holiday.

A Harmless ‘Offense’

Thanksgiving throughout American history has implied giving thanks to someone, presumably God. In the earlier years, that was assumed to be the Judeo-Christian God, even among those who didn’t put much stock in Judeo-Christian traditions and beliefs. 

Today, even the implication that we have set aside a day to give thanks to this unnamed someone is offensive to some. (Then again, almost everything is offensive to somebody for some reason.) So we make the holiday generic, encouraging people just to enjoy the time off and, if they are so inclined, to thank somebody for something.

I have no problem living in a multicultural, secularized society where people feel the need to tiptoe around the apparently offensive idea that some people honor a deity who, from a secular point of view, may or may not actually exist. In fact, it’s kind of fascinating to watch. 

But I also think Thanksgiving—a day we set aside for many of us to acknowledge unapologetically that we are not self-made people and have been given good things by God—is healthy for us individually and as a nation.

It does not imply an idealized past in which pilgrims and native Americans all got along nicely. (Pilgrims and the Wampanoag did have a harmonious relationship for a time, and the feast was probably very friendly, even if mainly diplomatic and fraught with language issues. But disease and conflict certainly followed in future years and generations. As much as we love the idealized picture, we all understand that deeply flawed human beings were involved.)

It does not imply any religious ideas forced on unwilling people. (No one has to give thanks. People who claim no faith ought not be offended by those who do. Many other countries base their holidays on a religion that has greatly influenced their cultures, and no one seems to get bent out of shape over it.)

It does, however, acknowledge that many of us hold values that have been profoundly shaped by faith; that we are dependent on provisions and a Provider; and that we live under a sovereign hand that is higher than our elected leaders.

It’s Good for Us

I think that’s important. In fact, I think giving thanks is good for a lot of reasons:

• People who frequently and consistently give thanks are statistically less depressed.

• Giving thanks positively changes how our brains work (see #4 in the linked article). 

• Giving thanks results in better overall mental and physical health.

• Expressing gratitude to other people improves relationships, especially our marriages.

• And, for those of us who anchor ourselves in biblical truth, giving thanks to God acknowledges our relationship with him (1 Chron. 16:34; Psalm 28:7); brings peace to our hearts (Col. 3:15-17); stirs up our faith and creates the right condition for prayer (Phil. 4:6-7); puts our relationships in context (1 Cor. 1:4); and opens our hearts to even more of God’s blessings (1 Tim. 4:4-5). 

That’s a lot of benefit for a practice that is fun and encouraging to do anyway. There’s no downside to giving thanks. You can read even more perspectives and testimonies of the wide range of benefits of giving thanks here

So give thanks this week—and every week—with all your heart. Express your gratitude to God and those around you. Find something every moment of every day to be thankful for. It’s like watering your surroundings with streams of life. 

Lots of good things will grow in and around a grateful heart.

Salt n Light

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©2013-present by chris tiegreen