Like most Americans, I was taught in grade school that the first Thanksgiving was celebrated in 1621 to commemorate the pilgrims' abundant first harvest.
Later I would learn that the pilgrims never repeated this feast, that they knew nothing at all of an annual Thanksgiving feast. Well, if the feast of 1621 wasn't exactly the beginning of our modern understanding of Thanksgiving, then when did it begin?
In 1863, President Abraham Lincoln declared a national holiday, Thanksgiving Day, to be celebrated the last Thursday in November. This Thanksgiving was the first in what went on to become our modern holiday tradition.
It's important to note that the historical setting of Thanksgiving 1863 was not one of prosperity, like the one in 1621, but one marked by loss, anxiety and division. The country in 1863 was experiencing the effects of a horrific civil war. Many Americans were stunned and confused that the prosperity and peace they once enjoyed in previous years could no longer be taken for granted.
By declaring a national day to give thanks, Lincoln wanted to bring Americans together and help them to realize that peace and prosperity are not the mere products of hard work and intelligence, but gifts from God. It seemed only right to Lincoln to recognize, as a nation, the providential hand of God in all things. From a historical perspective, this is the purpose of a national day of Thanksgiving: to remember to give thanks to God always, even in trying times.
This year, more than ever, we will need the same faith in God's providence that President Lincoln and the American people had in November of 1863. Without that faith, our Thanksgiving will seem shallow. Perhaps in the past, for many of us, the meaning of Thanksgiving was centered more around the day's festive character than its religious nature — a huge roasted turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, good wine, music and lots of family and friends. The first Thanksgiving reminds us that Thanksgiving is, above all, a celebration of God and his goodness in creating and sustaining us.
For Christians, Thanksgiving Day is more than an annual feast to thank God for his benefits. Most of all, it represents a way of life. To live with an attitude of thanksgiving is an integral part of Christian culture. The Eucharist being the “source and summit of the Christian life” means Thanksgiving. As Catholics, we are all familiar with the beginning words of the Eucharistic preface: “Father, all powerful and ever-living God, we do well always and everywhere to give you thanks through Jesus Christ our Lord …” To give God thanks always and everywhere in Christ is the foundation of genuine humility. A permanent attitude of thanksgiving reflects our utter dependence on God.
There may have been times in our lives when we were anything but thankful, wondering where was God in the toughest trials of our life. In these moments, it's important to recall that God is faithful to his promises for us: “For I know the plans I have for you … they are plans for good and not evil, to give you a future and a hope” (Jeremiah 29:11). Scripture constantly reminds us that God is good and that it is just to thank him for his goodness. St. Paul reminded the first Christians to “give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” However, for me, the most convincing reason to give thanks always to God is because Jesus Christ always gave thanks to God the Father.
Scripture show us Christ thanking his Father in prayer. For example, the Gospels of Matthew and Luke both emphasize Christ's attitude of thanksgiving: “It was then, filled with joy by the Holy Spirit, he said, ‘I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and of earth ’” We see the same in St. John's Gospel: “Father, I thank you for hearing my prayer …” We can imitate Christ's example by thanking God daily for his many blessings.
What should every Christian include on his daily thank-you list to God? I would begin by thanking God for the precious gift of life because he is the author of all life. I hope that I never waste a day of my life. My thank-you list would also take into account the wonderful gift of my Catholic faith and the gift of salvation offered to me by Christ. I consider this my ticket to heaven. How could I not be thankful to God for the gift of my family and friends? I hope I never take them for granted. They have always been there when I have needed them most.
And I will thank God, always and everywhere, for his infinite mercy and forgiveness. When I fell flat on my face, he was always there to pick me up and give me another chance.
Lastly, I would thank God for the gift of the cross because it makes me more like Christ.
As we celebrate Thanksgiving this year, let us remember the words of Psalm 92: “It is good to give thanks to God …” May God give you all a blessed Thanksgiving Day.
Legionary Father Andrew McNair, teaches at Mater Ecclesiae International Center of Studies in Greenville, Rhode Island