The Story Behind Thanksgiving
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On the fourth Thursday in November, each year, Americans gather for a day enthralled with family, food, the Thanksgiving Day Parade, and last but certainly not least—Football! The last two items on the list may be a bit different from the original 1621 harvest meal; however, the reason for gathering remains the same: to give thanks.
The First Thanksgiving
Believe it or not, the first Thanksgiving is much older than the 1621 harvest meal. Passover was the oldest of the Jewish festivals. In fact, it was older than the covenant with Moses at Sinai. Passover came before the priesthood, the Tabernacle, and the law. God ordained it while Israel was still enslaved in Egypt, and by the time of Christ, it had been celebrated by the Israelites for 1,500 years.
Thanksgiving helps us to remember that no matter the situation or circumstance, we all have God to be thankful for.
In the last week of Jesus’ life, He met with His disciples in a large upper room where He shared the Passover meal with them. It was during this Passover meal that the Lord’s Supper, the Eucharist, which means thanksgiving—was instituted. God’s people would no longer look back on the blood of a sacrificial lamb, but on the Lamb of God. They would celebrate deliverance from sin rather than deliverance from Egypt. The apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 11:23-26 writes,
For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, “This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way also he took the cup, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes (ESV).
This marked the first Thanksgiving. It was a meal; a meal that signified a great truth and reminded all of those who partook of the sacrifice and victory of Christ, and our victory through Him.
How Did The Thanksgiving Holiday Start?
On October 3, 1863, President Lincoln gave a proclamation, which declared Thanksgiving to be a national holiday. Although Christians had given thanks long before 1863, it was never nationalized, nor was this announcement the first of its kind.
In 1789, when George Washington was in his first term as the first president of the United States, he called for an official, “day of public thanksgiving and prayer.” Congress voted overwhelmingly in favor of it, but it wasn’t recognized until 1863. Lincoln, however, in the midst of the Civil War, understood the need for such a holiday:
Thanksgiving is about the recognition of God’s favor and grace on our lives.
“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….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…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.”
How Will You Spend Your Thanksgiving?
As you prepare to celebrate Thanksgiving with your family this week, take the time to remember not only what God has done for you, but that it was God who did it. Thanksgiving is about the recognition of God’s favor and grace on our lives. It is a day for saying much of God and declaring His goodness and power. It’s a day to remember that without Him, we have nothing to be thankful for. Thanksgiving helps us maintain perspective. It helps us see what God is doing. It propels us into His presence and strengthens our faith.