Celebrating Thanksgiving - Cultural or Biblical?

Happy Thanksgiving
Happy Thanksgiving
By George Veith November 23rd, 2018

October or November are the months of the year in which Thanksgiving is celebrated, depending on which country.

For Americans, it is one of the most important holidays of the year and celebrated on the fourth Thursday of November. Celebrating Thanksgiving's origins began with the Pilgrims and their landing on the east coast of the United States in 1620.  They left Europe in search of a place where they would be free of the state church and could worship God in their own way. The first year in their new home was very difficult and half of them died because of the very cold winter that year.  The second year they were helped by the local Aboriginal peoples who taught them how to brave the winter, grow the right crops, and live in their new home. As a sign of gratitude, the Pilgrims celebrated Thanksgiving, giving thanks to God for bringing them to a new place and providing for them, even through the help of the local native peoples.

Today, Thanksgiving is an important time when Americans get together with their families to feast on a meal that always includes certain foods such as turkey, sweet potatoes, corn and pumpkin pie. It is a time to recollect and give thanks for all of the good things of the past year.  For Americans, watching an American football match on Thanksgiving is also part of the tradition.

Thanksgiving is also celebrated in several other places in the world.  Canadian Thanksgiving occurs earlier (2nd Monday in October) and celebrates a successful harvest. Its origins date back to 1578, 42 years earlier than the first American thanksgiving. In Germany, Thanksgiving is celebrated as Erntedankfest - being grateful for a good harvest. Likewise in Japan, Thanksgiving Kinro Kansha no Hi is a national holiday and has its origin in an ancient harvest festival. Today, it is more about the celebration of hard work and community involvement.  A variation of American Thanksgiving is also celebrated in Liberia in West Africa, a country that was founded by freed slaves from the United States. 

Around the world, Christians in many countries including China celebrate Thanksgiving with a special Thanksgiving church service.  But where do the origins of Thanksgiving come from?  Are they a cultural celebration that the church has chosen to adopt to be grateful to God? For those Europeans who first landed on the shores of America, or Pilgrim Fathers as they are known in America, they may have taken their ideas of celebrating Thanksgiving from the many Jews who were living in Europe. The pilgrims originally came from Holland, sailed to England, and left from there to go to the new world. Holland at the time was the most open of societies in Europe.  While there was much anti-Semitism in other parts of Europe (the mass expulsion of Jews from Spain in the 1490's by Queen Isabella is one example), Holland was a place to which many Jews fled and found refuge. The pilgrims living in Holland would have been aware of the large Jewish population and probably would have seen Jews celebrating their Thanksgiving, known as Sukkoth in the Old Testament.

In the book of Leviticus, God speaks through Moses and commands the children of Israel to celebrate Sukkoth or the Festival of Tabernacles (Leviticus 23:39, 42). The festival of Sukkoth or "Tabernacles" is celebrated every year by Jewish people.  It helps them remember and be thankful that God was with their ancestors in the tabernacle for 40 years in the wilderness. During this time many families construct a "sukkah", or little tabernacle or little house inside their house if there is a room or often outside.  And for the seven days of the festival, it becomes the family's home. The family hangs up fruit, art from our children, and seasonal lights. They put in a table and chairs so that it becomes their temporary "home." The theme of the festival is that life is only temporary and we should be grateful to God for his care. Jewish people remember that they are "strangers and sojourners" like their father Abraham and that we are just passing through this world on our way to the Heavenly City (Heb. 11:9-10).

Sukkot or Festival of Tabernacles is also a harvest festival. It happens during the fall harvest in Israel.  Again, God commanded it be a celebrated every year for this reason.  The people are to give God thanks for a bountiful harvest. So the Old Testament commands the Israelites to "rejoice before the LORD your God". And when Jewish people celebrate the festival of Tabernacles, they also have the custom of quoting Psalm 136:1 "Give thanks to the LORD for he is good; for his love endures forever."  

This year as we think of the Thanksgiving celebration, let us be thankful to the Giver of all our blessing and that we, too, are wanderers, like the children of Israel, journeying to our final destination.

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