I’m just going to say it: Thanksgiving doesn’t get nearly the credit it deserves. It doesn’t have the flashy colors and bling of Christmas. It doesn’t have the sex appeal of Valentines Day or the explosive “In your face, America!” attitude of Independence Day. Nope. Thanksgiving is a humble holiday, dressed in neutral tones and turkeys.
But you know what? I like that about Thanksgiving. I like it because humility is a seed of gratitude, and gratitude grows joy, which, for a secular holiday, is pretty darn spiritual—don’t you think? Maybe Thanksgiving Day is meaningful to you, or maybe it’s little more than a vague, first-grade recollection of Englishmen, Native Americans, and—what was that boat’s name, again? Somewhere along the way, the godliness of gratitude seemed to get smothered with gravy as the holiday became increasingly celebrated as secular. But, like many holidays, Thanksgiving was born of spiritual meaning in the church and immigrated to America.
As the story goes, in November 1621, just over 100 English Puritans and Separatist (groups who, for different reasons, opposed the practices and beliefs of the Church of England) anchored their journey from England to America. This was no easy boat cruise, however. The crew and shipmates spent two months blowing and tossing about the icy Atlantic in the rickety Mayflower. When they finally ported, instead of a warm, sandy beach, they were greeted by the rocky, barren coastline of a New England winter. Within five months, half of the settlers died of starvation, cold, and disease. In spite of their loss and their ongoing hardships in the new land, they still recognized their blessings and gave thanks for their first year’s harvest.
Humility is a seed of gratitude, and gratitude grows joy.
Maybe you, like the pilgrims, have experienced losses as dark and desolate as a New England winter. Do you feel much like being thankful this holiday season? This year, my family said goodbye to three family members taken by cancer. Among them was my grandmother, who learned last Thanksgiving season she had 6 months to live. I always knew my grandma as a thankful person, and—especially during those last months—nearly every labored breath was a praise.
How could the pilgrims and my grandma have the capacity for gratitude when their circumstances just plain . . . well, stunk? Because they took to heart the words of 1 Thessalonians 5:18, “In everything give thanks, for this is the will of God in Jesus for you” (emphasis mine). That first American Thanksgiving wasn’t spontaneous. It wasn’t even traditional. Setting aside time for gratitude was a routine of the Puritan lifestyle.
In the early 16th century, the Church of England broke from the Catholic Church and its large calendar of holidays, which required people to attend church and pay for expensive celebrations. The reform reduced the number of church holidays from 95 to 27, but some Puritans still weren’t satisfied, wanting to withdraw from all imposed celebrations. The holidays were replaced with special days of fasting and thanksgiving in response to what the Puritans viewed as special acts from the hand of God: unexpected disasters or threats called for fasting, while special blessings called for days of thanksgiving. In everything, they acknowledged God.
The Bible is filled with similar stories. In Genesis, Joseph’s brothers sell him into slavery out of jealousy of their father’s favoritism. By God’s grace, protection, and provision, Joseph is favored again, this time by the Pharaoh he serves. He rises to a place of power, with which he saves his land from death by famine. “What you meant for evil,” he tells his brothers when they reunite decades later, “God meant for good” (50:20). Years of abandonment, slavery, and imprisonment suddenly had meaning and purpose. Joseph recognized this, because in everything he, too, acknowledged God.
Practicing intentional gratitude reframes the way we see our circumstances. It heightens our awareness of God’s presence and, thanks-upon-thanks, is a declaration of trust in our faith journeys. And, how cool is this: it physiologically remaps your brain toward grateful behavior, meaning the more grateful you are the more grateful you become.
As you look back on your year through a lens of gratitude, what circumstances transform from bad to good—maybe even to great? How have you grown personally, professionally, relationally, spiritually? Can you start to make out the edges of purpose and meaning? This holiday season, don’t wait for the turkey and the pumpkin pie to reflect and say thanks. Thanksgiving starts now.