This Thanksgiving Day recalls another Thanksgiving many years ago—the happy hours I spent with my children and grandchildren. Over turkey and dressing, I decided to quiz my then 8-year-old grandson, as proud grandparents often do.
I leaned over and said, “Charlie, why did the Pilgrims celebrate the first Thanksgiving?”
Charlie resorted to the obvious answer. He said, “They wanted to give thanks.”
“And who did the Pilgrims give thanks to?”
Charlie squirmed a little bit. “I don’t know,” he said. “I guess they were thanking the Indians. That’s what we learned at school anyway.”
I was aghast. We were celebrating a major holiday with deep Christian roots, and my own grandson didn’t know its significance!
The real Thanksgiving story starts in 1621, in Plymouth Colony, Massachusetts. Life was hard for the Pilgrims, and through the first winter the tiny colony endured hunger and privation. Nearly all of them fell ill, and only half survived the winter.
But spring came, the crops were planted, and the first harvest proved bountiful. Governor William Bradford called a special feast to give thanks to the Creator. They celebrated for a week, along with 100 Native Americans they invited to join them.
The Pilgrims did not give thanks to the Native Americans; they invited them to join in giving thanks to God—the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God made known in Jesus Christ.
Days set apart for thanksgiving were a common feature of colonial life. In 1631, a Puritan colony faced starvation when a ship carrying food supplies was delayed. Governor Winthrop declared a day of prayer to God. On the appointed day, as they were praying, the ship sailed into the harbor. The day of petition was turned into a day of feasting and thanksgiving.
Other thanksgiving days were held in Florida, Maine, and Texas. Virginia colonists wrote into their charter that the day of their arrival was to be “kept holy as a day of thanksgiving to Almighty God.”
Today we don’t hear much about thanking Almighty God. Instead we are urged to conjure up a generic gratefulness directed to nobody in particular.
When I realized my own grandson had lost sight of the Christian meaning of Thanksgiving, I knew I had to do some homework myself. I pulled together information about George Washington, who declared a day of national thanksgiving in 1789. I tracked down literature on Abraham Lincoln, who declared Thanksgiving an annual holiday in 1863. And I sat down for a good, long talk with Charlie.
As Christian parents, we need to make sure we are passing on our religious heritage to our children. The recent Religious Landscape survey by the Pew Forum showed that 18 percent of Protestants and 30 percent of Catholics who had some faith as a child are now unaffiliated with any religion. We’ve got to do better passing it on.
So today don’t assume everyone knows why you are gathering together over turkey and cranberry sauce. Teach your children and grandchildren that generic gratefulness isn’t enough. Thanksgiving means giving thanks to the one true God.
— by Chuck Colson
Chuck Colson was the founder of Prison Fellowship, the Colson Center and Breakpoint (www.breakpoint.org). Copyright© Prison Fellowship Ministries. This was first printed on Nov. 26, 2009. Reprinted with permission.