Having lived within the United Kingdom as an American expat, I have learned about much of the culture around me and participated in quite a few British traditions and holidays.
I celebrated Guy Fawkes and Bonfire Night with enthusiasm, pulled crackers at Christmas, cheered for England against Australia in rugby — and I still enjoy a cup of Yorkshire tea every morning!
There were a few American holidays I sought to celebrate while in Britain and am grateful for those brothers and sisters in Christ who helped me celebrate them, especially Thanksgiving.
It is my wish to here share with you all that Thanksgiving means to an American Christian, as well as some of its historical and traditional aspects.
Thanksgiving is an American holiday that goes deep in American history and tradition. It is a unique time, in which Americans give thanks for the blessings given them, whether they acknowledge and believe in God or not. It is also a holiday, sharing historical and ecclesiastical links with our founding roots in the United Kingdom.
Although the institutionalisation, or federal appointment, of this national holiday began in earnest in the middle of the nineteenth century, thanksgiving celebrations, as a part of giving thanks to God in times of harvest, actually began much earlier.
While harvest celebrations are celebrated by many pagan cultures, the tradition of American Thanksgiving has English Christian roots. Before the Norman Conquest, Anglo Saxon Christians celebrated Lammas, a feast (albeit Roman Catholic) in August for the beginning of the wheat harvest.
When the Reformation came to England, Catholic holidays and feasts were abolished and days of fasting or thanksgiving were held. Such days of thanksgiving were held when God’s mercy was shown in times of great danger, for example the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588 or the capture of Guy Fawkes in 1605.
The Puritans were excellent practitioners of holding days of fasting in times of difficulty or giving thanks for deliverances, and they brought this practical theology with them as they came to the New World.
To give an accurate history of the first ‘Pilgrims’ that celebrated Thanksgiving in New England would require a longer discourse than I can give, but let us say that they were Puritan separatists that came from England, to what is now Plymouth, Massachusetts, in the early winter of 1620.
Their first winter in the New World was brutal and almost half the Pilgrims died during that winter of disease and starvation. By the following year, in God’s providence, they had befriended two local Indians, Squanto and Samoset, who taught them how to farm local crops and catch local wildlife.
That fall they celebrated a day of thanksgiving and gave thanks to God for keeping them through the first hard year of life in the New World. They held another thanksgiving feast in 1623 after the Lord delivered them from a horrible drought that year. This celebration was declared by the governor of that colony, William Bradford, and was perhaps the first civil thanksgiving declaration in the new colonies.
Days of thanksgiving were held afterward by the American colonists, but at random times. In 1777, during the heat of the American Revolution, a solemn day of thanksgiving was sanctioned by the Continental Congress in celebration of God’s kind providences that year. After the war, many presidents declared select days of thanksgiving for the whole nation.
George Washington and John Adams were especially noted for their thanksgiving declarations, which are filled with proper acknowledgement of and praise to almighty God. These celebrations were not always annual, and it was not until 1863 that Thanksgiving became an annual, nationally observed holiday.
Abraham Lincoln was the first to declare that the fourth Thursday in November was to be set aside for a day of thanksgiving and praise, for all the blessings the Lord had bestowed upon the nation, even in the tumult of war.
I am very grateful for the national celebration of Thanksgiving. Though much of its former tenor is lost in the hedonism of our age, it is still for many a sweet time of giving thanks and gathering with one’s family.
Thanksgiving traditions across the country differ, but it is usually well known worldwide as a time when families gather to eat good food (and lots of it), watch American football and parades, and enjoy good company.
Christians also celebrate this tradition, but highlight that these gifts (family, food, blessings) come from God. Do we give due praise and prayer to him? Perhaps not as much as we should.
Special sermons are given on the Sunday before or after Thanksgiving and special hymns are sung. The English harvest hymn, by Henry Alford, ‘Come ye thankful people, come’, is usually sung (although probably few understand that it is English and not American!).
Some families will give toasts and state what they are thankful for. I can definitely remember doing this on previous Thanksgiving celebrations. Last November, I celebrated Thanksgiving with my family back in Vidalia, Georgia. It was the first Thanksgiving I have celebrated on American soil in two whole years.
It was a momentous and special occasion for many reasons, for which I am very grateful to the Lord. It was also the first Thanksgiving without my grandfather and his absence was much on our minds. He died of cancer in the summer and his passing has been difficult to bear. However, we rejoice with the knowledge that he is ‘forever with the Lord’.
If I were to give a list of the things I am thankful for, I fear the list would be too long to recite. That being said, I am grateful for the Lord’s provision and guidance over last year, especially during the time I spent in England.
I am thankful for the work of God’s kingdom in that nation, that I was privileged to observe, and I am thankful for the Lord preserving a remnant in that land.
I am glad that the Lord continues to give his answer to the dying prayer of Hugh Latimer, ‘Be of good comfort, Master Ridley, and play the man! We shall this day light such a candle, by God’s grace, in England, as I trust shall never be put out’.
I am thankful for God’s providence that brought English and Scottish settlers to America and for those ministers who still preach God’s Word in this land. But most of all, I am thankful for Jesus Christ, our Saviour, who shed his blood for us that we might become ‘the righteousness of God’.