Thanksgiving—not just a holiday

Peoples of all nations have gathered through the ages to give thanks.

As my adult son was setting the table for a quieter-than-usual Thanksgiving meal last year, he noticed the wooden Pilgrims sitting in a place of honor as the centerpiece. These had been my mother’s and were always part of our table on this holiday. He pointed to the Pilgrims and asked the rest of the family about the true narrative of Thanksgiving—if it was really a joyful meal between Native Americans and Pilgrims, sharing food from the first harvest and gathering as neighbors to give thanks.

As often happens when our children are home for the holidays, a vigorous discussion about truth, liberty, and sometimes-tumultuous American history ensued. But it got me thinking about the origin of the word thanksgiving and the fact that peoples of all nations have gathered through the ages to give thanks. 

We don’t need to wait for blessings or healing before giving thanks. 

Looking into the origins of thanksgiving celebrations takes us back to several hundred years before Christ Jesus walked the earth. They don’t have anything to do with Pilgrims, of course, but were a tradition recounted in many ancient texts—especially the Bible—of giving thanks to Almighty God, the divine Father-Mother who is the creator and sustainer of life. 

In the Bible we read of farmers and towns-people praising and thanking God for bountiful harvests as well as protection, good weather, health, and prosperity. And this certainly correlates with the inspiration for the American tradition. But the Bible’s King David teaches us a different approach to thanksgiving that goes beyond just “thanks” to God for “giving” us what we need. As Psalmist, he repeatedly calls upon us to give thanks for all that God is and does for us every day—thanks for God’s unconditional love for all and good works among men and women. 

We don’t need to wait for blessings or healing before giving thanks, but can express gratitude through the confidence and expectancy that God will always be God, the all-loving creator who meets every human need. In Psalms we read, “Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his love endures forever. Let the redeemed of the Lord tell their story. . . . Let them give thanks to the Lord for his unfailing love and his wonderful deeds for mankind” (107:1, 2, 8, New International Version). 

This is a recognition that God, who is universal good, provides for all our needs even before we ask or know about them. So we can confidently thank God for blessings we know are inevitably ours as His loved children. 

Echoing the spiritual sense of thanksgiving in the Bible, Mary Baker Eddy wrote in Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures of the importance of actively recognizing God’s goodness: “Are we really grateful for the good already received? Then we shall avail ourselves of the blessings we have, and thus be fitted to receive more. Gratitude is much more than a verbal expression of thanks. Action expresses more gratitude than speech” (p. 3).

Over the course of the generations in the Bible, humanity’s understanding of God becomes clearer,
until the teachings and works of Christ Jesus lead to the recognition that God is Love itself (see
I John 4:8) and will always care for His children, as a shepherd faithfully tends his flock. Jesus taught his disciples the importance of acknowledging God’s tender care continually, even before we’ve received what we are asking for in prayer. At Lazarus’ tomb, for instance, where many were gathered in mourning, Jesus offered up praise to God before Lazarus was resurrected, along with this explanation to those at hand: “Father, I thank you that you have heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I said this for the benefit of the people standing here, that they may believe that you sent me” (John 11:41, 42, NIV). 

Years ago on Thanksgiving Day, our family’s loved Labrador Retriever got lost after chasing a deer in the woods near Grandma’s house. After a few hours had passed and she was still missing, despite our having enlisted the neighbors and the local police to help search, my children became very fearful. It was snowing that day, with temperatures below freezing, and our dog wasn’t familiar with the area. 

I sat my kids down, and we talked about the fact that even without our asking or praying, God is always watching over every one of the wonderful creatures He made, including our pet. I talked about one of Christ Jesus’ parables that illustrates the depth of God’s love for all of His creation. Jesus told his listeners: “Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Doesn’t he leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep’ ” (Luke 15:4–6, NIV). I said that I was thankful that God already had our dog in His care and was shepherding her, carrying her home, right at that moment. 

After that, I jumped in the car to do one more loop around the block looking for our dog. Within minutes, I saw her walking down the street in the direction of Grandma’s house. We all expressed a little extra gratitude at the Thanksgiving table that day for God’s watchful care for every one of us. 

Praising God is certainly something we do when we have experienced goodness or healing, but it is also what we can regularly do just because God is God, good. God is perfect Love, ever-present Spirit, and is always here for us. Understanding a broader and more timeless meaning of the word thanksgiving helps us to see that we are continuing a tradition that was established millennia ago. It’s practiced every day by folks everywhere who are rejoicing in the beauty, bounty, blessings, and magnificent daily gifts God bestows on us all.

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Spending Thanksgiving alone with God
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