For many years during the month of November, we encouraged our young children to identify something every single day that they were thankful for. We wrote these sweet sentiments down and hung each one on our “Thankful Tree” in preparation for Thanksgiving. Once Thanksgiving Day arrives, my family enjoys the tradition of going around the table and sharing something from the past year that each of us are thankful for.
I always thought the point of Thanksgiving was to show thankfulness and gratitude. And it is…but I also think it is something more.
I was reading a simple book with my 2nd grade daughter titled The First Thanksgiving. As we were reading, something profound occurred to me that I had never really considered before. I had never stopped to realize that the real miracle of Thanksgiving wasn’t that the Pilgrims fled religious persecution and made it over on the Mayflower.
The real miracle of Thanksgiving wasn’t that many of them survived a grueling and vicious winter.
The real miracle of Thanksgiving wasn’t that they had a plentiful harvest, thanks to the help of Samoset and Squanto.
The real miracle wasn’t that not a single Pilgrim returned to England on the Mayflower when it departed.
The real miracle of Thanksgiving was that two people groups, who should have been enemies and were different in every conceivable way, came together in the unity of their shared humanity.
I don’t know why this fact had never occurred to me before. I’ve read some variation of the story of the first Thanksgiving probably a thousand times in my lifetime. And I always thought the point was that they were grateful for surviving up to that point. They were grateful for the help that the Native Americans provided.
But what the original Thanksgiving Feast has shown me in light of our very polarized world is that it is possible for people from two different worlds to come together and be thankful with and for each other.
Despite their fear of each other. Despite their differences in every conceivable way. Despite different cultures and customs. Despite worshipping differently.
It is no surprise, then, that Abraham Lincoln was the President who initiated the National holiday of Thanksgiving on October 3, 1863 during the height of the Civil War. He signed a proclamation that the last Thursday of November would be set apart as, “a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens.” Up until this point, individual states celebrated Thanksgiving at their own times ever since George Washington’s suggestion of such a holiday 74 years prior. Lincoln’s decision was prompted by many letters from a woman named Sarah Hale, urging the President to institute a “day of our annual Thanksgiving made a National and fixed Union festival.”
I have to believe that President Lincoln recognized something that I had long since glossed over in regards to the celebration of Thanksgiving.
Within his proclamation, Lincoln writes:
“In the midst of a civil war of unequalled magnitude and severity…”
Lincoln then shares the blessings that they have received in the midst of that year like peace with other nations, enlarged borders, yields from harvests and mining, and increasing population.
“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 solemnly, reverently, and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and with one voice by the whole American people.
“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 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, tranquility and Union.”
As we draw closer to this Thanksgiving holiday, we are obviously not fighting a war with guns and swords. But there is a different “civil war” of unequalled magnitude and severity that is being fought with ugly words of hatred for those who think differently than we do. Our fractured relationships and hardened hearts are the battlefield carnage.
So I urge you…in this time of turmoil, where relationships have been upended and churches fractured by varying thoughts on masks, vaccine mandates, racial tensions, and political ideaology, may we remember the first Thanksgiving. May we remember the day this proclamation was made and the beginning of a National Holiday. May we remember that we are all human beings, fellow image bearers of Christ, and may we show thankfulness with one heart and with one voice.
After all, the real miracle of Thanksgiving is unity.