The traditional story of the ‘first Thanksgiving’ takes place in 1621 at the Plymouth Plantation in Massachusetts. Puritan Christian pilgrims were celebrating their new-found ability to cultivate the land and survive the winter—techniques taught to them by the Wampanoag Indians in the region. Their primary teacher was an American Indian named Tisquantum, or ‘Squanto,’ who was fluent in English and (bet you didn’t know this) a Catholic.
Squanto had been kidnapped in 1614 by John Hunt, an Englishman (of John Smith’s crew) who intended to sell him and others into slavery in Spain. Local Franciscan friars rescued the Indians and instructed them in the Christian faith. Squanto, during his time with the friars, chose to be Baptized in full communion with the Catholic Church. He then traveled to England and became ever-more fluent in the language before returning to Massachusetts in 1619. The pilgrims arrived on the Mayflower about one year later and, finding no support from their own countrymen in the region—secular opportunists like the aforementioned Smith and Hunt—they relied on Squanto, who moved in with the pilgrims and helped them to survive the harsh New England winter. After a year, having successfully established themselves in the new land, the Puritan pilgrims joined together with the Wampanoag to give thanks to God.
By 1622, Squanto (like many of his countrymen) had succumbed to European diseases for which he had no immunity. He died a Christian, begging Governor William Bradford of Mayflower Colony (likely one of my ancestors) to pray for him that he might go to heaven. Because of the Christian brotherhood between Squanto and his people and the Puritan pilgrims, exemplified in the Thanksgiving celebration, there was peace between American Indians and Europeans in New England for over fifty years.
You might not know it from the way it is celebrated these days, but Thanksgiving is (and has been from its founding) a religious holiday. Oh, we’ve secularized it into a day of celebrating turkeys—many even call it ‘Turkey Day’ now—but this terribly misses the point. On this day we give thanks for what we have . . . directly to our friends and family, yes, but most importantly to the God from whom everything else flows.
Of course, the story of the ‘First Thanksgiving’ above—which we all know, at least in part—is dismissed by secularist cynics. Thanksgiving, they say, was an appropriation of existing pagan harvest rituals that existed in Europe and the Americas well before 1621. This is true; but even the pagan harvest ritual was a way of giving thanks not to self, or even to others, but to some higher power. For the pagans, this took various forms—polytheistic thanks to one or more of their gods, or thanks to a nebulous god of nature [whether it was called ‘god’ or not]—but the festival was never a hedonistic celebration of gorging oneself on food, or a narcissistic celebration of one’s successfully obtaining friendship, goods, and possessions.
For too many, this is what it has become. A secularist or atheist may say he is giving thanks for what he has, but who is he thanking? He may of course thank his family and friends for what they have done for him, and this is admirable and right, but who is he thanking for his car, house, health, success, etc.? If there is no higher power responsible for these things, then he believes he has simply obtained them for himself . . . and thus, Thanksgiving becomes not an altruistic or devotional act but instead a self-congratulatory one. This is the position, by-default, for most non-believers. Far too many Christians fall into this same error as well.
Pretty much everybody instinctively recognizes that everything they have comes from outside of them, and they feel a quiet call to give thanks for it. Most, however, don’t realize (or actively deny) the inherent religiosity in that sentiment. It comes from God, working through our conscience. We owe thanks to him, and this truth is written on our hearts waiting for us to embrace it. When we tamp down this truth, or bury it in our own selfish desires, or deny the existence of God, then it is inevitable that Thanksgiving becomes a mere ‘Turkey Day’ and giving thanks becomes a celebration of self. This is the natural conclusion of a world-view that acknowledges no God.
So this Thanksgiving, I pray that everybody will give thanks to God for the blessings in their lives. This is been the purpose from the first Thanksgiving in 1621, and even the pagan harvest festivals that predated it were built upon the same central truth. If you look deep within yourself, without pretensions and practiced denials, you will find the same truth written there on your heart too.
O God, of Whose mercies there is no number, and of Whose goodness the treasure is infinite; we render thanks to Your most gracious majesty for the gifts You have bestowed upon us, evermore beseeching Your clemency, that as You grant the petitions of them that ask You, You will never forsake them, but will prepare for the reward to come. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.