Dear Dr. B,
Thanksgiving is one of our family’s most enjoyable celebrations. Recently a neighbor told us that Thanksgiving is not a Christian holiday. It was interesting because we have always felt that it was. Is it right for us to feel this way?
John and Elizabeth
Dear John and Elizabeth,
In the strictness sense Thanksgiving is not exactly a ‘Christian’ holiday. On the other hand, the tradition of Thanksgiving is rooted in Christian symbolism. From the first records of our founding pioneers, Thanksgiving was a celebration of thanks to God for providing for and protecting them.
It was President Abraham Lincoln who, on Oct. 3,1863, first declared Thanksgiving as a national holiday. He challenged Americans to set Thanksgiving as a time to thank God for the various blessings during and after the Civil War. It is interesting to note that he did not seem to make any mention of the traditional Thanksgiving celebration. Perhaps he was simply preoccupied with the war. It was Sarah Josepha Hale, a prominent magazine editor, who suggested to Lincoln that he make a proclamation concerning Thanksgiving. According to Hale, since citizens had celebrated Thanksgiving for years, it needed to be officially set as a national holiday. Lincoln did exactly as she suggested. After reading his proclamation one can’t conclude that he called Thanksgiving a Christian holiday. On the other hand, if you would ferret out the true history of the first Thanksgiving celebration, thankfulness to God is strongly inferred. Other documents of the settlers offer a strong Christian influence as well.
Take for instance some journal entries of William Bradford, the great governor and chronicler of those early settlers. In his diary he revealed the true identity of the Pilgrims. He referred to them as missionaries coming to the new world to plant the gospel of Jesus Christ in the wilderness. He wrote, "They had a great hope and inward zeal of laying some good foundation for the propagating and advancing the Gospel of the kingdom of Christ in those remote parts of the world; yea, though they should be but even as stepping-stones unto others for the performing of so great a work." (I wonder how many American school students ever heard their teacher share those words?) There is yet another resource of interest. You would also be able to discover how God performed miracle after miracle for these missionary settlers by reading the book, “The Light and the Glory,” written by Peter Marshall.
In his book Marshall wrote, “But God's greatest miracle for them was on its way! On March 16th, 1621, a lone Indian, clad only in a loincloth, had walked boldly up to them and said: "Welcome, Englishmen!" After the Pilgrims had recovered from this surprise, they had found out that his name was Samoset, and that he had come from Massasoit, a regional Indian chief who lived about 40 miles to the southwest. The following week he appeared again, this time bringing with him a Patuxet Indian by the name of Squanto, who as William Bradford would write, was "a special instrument sent of God for their good, beyond their expectation." That was understating it a bit … In October, when the 20 acres of corn the Pilgrims had planted under Squanto's tutelage had been harvested, they wanted to hold a celebration festival. They invited Massasoit and the Wampanoag, and of course Samoset and Squanto as well, to come and celebrate with them. Massasoit came a day early, with 90 braves plus women and children. The Pilgrim women's hearts must have sunk, because they were going to have to use the corn stored up for the winter to feed this crowd of Indians. But Massasoit had thought of that, and had ordered some of his men to hunt for the occasion. They brought with them five deer strung up on poles, and wild turkeys. There were fish from the bay, berries and other fruits, and roasted corn. The Pilgrim women supplied vegetables from their gardens. The festival lasted three days, complete with bow and arrow shooting contests, foot races and relay races. It was a good and peaceful time for Pilgrims and Indians together.
I suspect that many times during those festivities the Pilgrims stopped to thank the Lord for His miraculous provision of Squanto. Had it not been for him, there would have been no cause for celebration and thanksgiving. God had sent this American Indian, who spoke English fluently, ate English foods, understood English customs and ways, and knew about the Christian faith because of his time with the Spanish monks: the right man, in the right place, at the right time. Only God can do something like that.
As I mentioned prior, even after discovering that the Pilgrims were missionaries with a vision for the new world and reading of the many miracles that God performed on their behalf one can’t conclusively conclude that Thanksgiving is a Christian holiday.
Thanksgiving is a special time when everyone should recognize that God has enriched his or her life. For the follower of Jesus Christ, Thanksgiving is truly a wonderful and sacred holiday.