Make a joyful noise unto the Lord, all ye lands. Serve the Lord with gladness: come before his presence with singing. Know ye that the Lord he is God: it is he that hath made us, and not we ourselves; we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture. Enter into his gates with thanksgiving, and into his courts with praise: be thankful unto him, and bless his name. For the Lord is good; his mercy is everlasting; and his truth endureth to all generations. – Psalm 100:1-5 KJV
Thankful to Someone.
There’s being thankful for… and there’s being thankful to.
Each year, on this day of days, we’re generally thankful for many things – say, a taste of that favorite sweet potato recipe we remember from childhood, the full meal before us, banter and laughter at the table, safe travels to that table, the break from work, and the work itself (that adds so much meaning to our lives, and without which there could be no break), the freedoms and other blessings we share as Americans, the health that permits us to enjoy fully these things, and so on.
Of course, behind all these things, we find people. And when it comes to those people, we have expanded options. We certainly should be thankful to them: to the grandmother who baked the sweet potatoes. To our fellow travelers. To co-workers and colleagues who constitute our work community and make work meaningful and share in the load. To the life partner, the children, the extended-family members we love and treasure. To the men and women past and present who worked and sacrificed in many different ways that we might enjoy what is good today about America. People are the immediate authors of much of what we’re thankful for. Thankful to people? Absolutely.
We could stop there.
But should we? Our family, our friends, and many more have contributed much, but not all, to what makes us thankful. Others may have added in small ways to our health, but can’t take total credit for it. Neither can we. We may have habits of rest and work and diet that matter, but we know only too well the limitations of these practices. The awesome Thanksgiving sunset on the late fall sky? No one we know can claim the credit. And what about our capacity for thankfulness? How and why did we come to value and practice gratitude? Who do we thank for that?
It’s possible to have a secular Thanksgiving. That’s certainly the status of Thanksgiving in the law today. That’s as it should be; we’re free to be content with – and even be thankful for – that, and the freedom that underpins it. But for many, perhaps most, people that’s not enough. It’s not the status of Thanksgiving in many households, or in many hearts. Throughout human experience, people have grasped the possibility, maybe even the likelihood, that something greater – Someone greater – is the author of it all. And, going a step further, have considered that same Someone as deserving thanks. Many centuries ago, the Psalmist expressed it. More recently, Thoreau alluded to it. Along the way, Presidents made it plain in language establishing the holiday.
We can be thankful to that Someone today. Among other things, I’m deeply thankful to Him for you.
(Apologies for the extended footnotes. The good news is, you’re free to read or to ignore them. Something else to be thankful for. :))
An aside: Fact is, just about every person worldwide contributed. They may not have done it with us in mind – or even deliberately. For example, those other drivers on the highway weren’t focused on our needs so much as they were conforming to rules of the road, or singing “Over the river and through the woods” with their kids. What’s more, in order to contribute to our well-being, they themselves all had to depend in countless ways on the goodness of strangers – the farmers who planted the sweet potatoes, the hands who harvested them, the ticket agents and baggage handlers at the airports, and so on – the dependencies expand to cover and thread-through the whole of society, even extending across borders and oceans to those countries who don’t observe this particular holiday. People abroad may have provided the automobile or plane, or many of its components, the coffee or tea we enjoy; they may be the market for our work. Perhaps even that special life partner – or you yourself – may have come from abroad, enriching this country and adding a touch of class in the process (thank you!).
In the English tradition, days of thanksgiving and special thanksgiving religious services became important during the English Reformation in the reign of Henry VIII and in reaction to the large number of religious holidays on the Catholic calendar. Before 1536 there were 95 Church holidays, plus 52 Sundays, when people were required to attend church and forego work and sometimes pay for expensive celebrations. The 1536 reforms reduced the number of Church holidays to 27, but some Puritans wished to completely eliminate all Church holidays, including Christmas and Easter. The holidays were to be replaced by specially called Days of Fasting or Days of Thanksgiving, in response to events that the Puritans viewed as acts of special providence. Unexpected disasters or threats of judgement from on high called for Days of Fasting. Special blessings, viewed as coming from God, called for Days of Thanksgiving. For example, Days of Fasting were called on account of drought in 1611, floods in 1613, and plagues in 1604 and 1622. Days of Thanksgiving were called following the victory over the Spanish Armada in 1588 and following the deliverance of Queen Anne in 1705. An unusual annual Day of Thanksgiving began in 1606 following the failure of the Gunpowder Plot in 1605 and developed into Guy Fawkes Day on November 5…
…In the United States, the modern Thanksgiving holiday tradition is traced to a sparsely documented 1621 celebration at Plymouth in present-day Massachusetts, and also to a well recorded 1619 event in Virginia. The 1621 Plymouth feast and thanksgiving was prompted by a good harvest. Pilgrims and Puritans who began emigrating from England in the 1620s and 1630s carried the tradition of Days of Fasting and Days of Thanksgiving with them to New England. The 1619 arrival of 38 English settlers at Berkeley Hundred in Charles City County, Virginia, concluded with a religious celebration as dictated by the group’s charter from the London Company, which specifically required “that the day of our ships arrival at the place assigned … in the land of Virginia shall be yearly and perpetually kept holy as a day of thanksgiving to Almighty God.”…
… As President of the United States, George Washington proclaimed the first nationwide thanksgiving celebration in America marking November 26, 1789, “as a day of public thanksgiving and prayer to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many and signal favours of Almighty God.”…
In 1863, Abraham Lincoln piled on, issuing the following:
The year that is drawing towards its close, has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added, which are of so extraordinary a nature, that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever watchful providence of Almighty God. In the midst of a civil war of unequalled magnitude and severity, which has sometimes seemed to foreign States to invite and to provoke their aggression, peace has been preserved with all nations, order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere except in the theatre of military conflict; while that theatre has been greatly contracted by the advancing armies and navies of the Union. Needful diversions of wealth and of strength from the fields of peaceful industry to the national defence, have not arrested the plough, the shuttle or the ship; the axe has enlarged the borders of our settlements, and the mines, as well of iron and coal as of the precious metals, have yielded even more abundantly than heretofore. Population has steadily increased, notwithstanding the waste that has been made in the camp, the siege and the battle-field; and the country, rejoicing in the consciousness of augmented strength and vigor, is permitted to expect continuance of years with large increase of freedom. No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy. It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole American People. I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens. And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquillity and Union.
In testimony whereof, I have hereunto set my hand and caused the Seal of the United States to be affixed.
Done at the City of Washington, this Third day of October, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, and of the Independence of the United States the Eighty-eighth.
By the President: Abraham Lincoln