Thanksgiving American Style

There’s a short video from Prager U entitled, “What’s the Truth About the First Thanksgiving?” It’s a good reminder of the real, historical underpinnings of our annual celebration of thanks. If you bother to read this blog during the rush of your holiday festivities, you might want to take an extra six minutes to view it. It will refresh your memory if not totally enlighten you to the facts.

It’s amazing how historical reality can be replaced by myth, legend, and the slight-of-hand we often pass off as research. Facts are facts, and we tend to put them aside due to a philosophy that states, “Never let the facts get in the way of a good story.”

The Name of the Game

Regardless, Thanksgiving shouldn’t be that difficult to figure out. The very term gives it away. Giving thanks is the name of the game—or is it football? We will offer up thanks if and when our team wins. Other than that, giving thanks is not always a part of the holiday set aside for doing just that.

Turkey, ham, football, family… We often have it all on Thanksgiving Day. As it turns out, these are all things for which we can give thanks—these and many more, of course. But do we?

The traditional passage of Scripture used in many Thanksgiving homilies (back when congregations actually got together to worship on Thanksgiving) is Luke 17:11-19. You may remember this as the story of the ten lepers. In it, ten men with the dread disease of leprosy called out to Jesus and asked for healing. In those days, there was no known cure.

As the event transpires, Jesus tells them to go show themselves to the priests. In that culture, the priests were the ones who could pronounce someone “clean.” Since leprosy ostensibly made an individual “unclean” and an outcast, if any healing occurred, showing yourself to the priests was the prudent thing to do.

Along the way, one of the lepers noticed that he had been healed. Instead of going directly to the priests, he was overcome with gratitude and returned forthwith to Jesus to thank him. Jesus’ natural question was, “Where are the other nine?” Indeed. Where were they?

Even on the day of Thanksgiving, we tend to be among the “other nine.” It’s just another day off. A day to eat, hang out with family, and watch football…

Civil Religion

Politicians in this country had tinkered with the date for Thanksgiving for decades. Finally in 1941, FDR signed a joint congressional resolution imbedding it on the fourth Thursday in November (where it has remained ever since). Interestingly enough, his reason for doing so was to provide an economic boost to the country. Years earlier, Abraham Lincoln had tried something similar in an attempt to foster a greater sense of unity between the north and south.

And so, civil religion has given us this day of relaxation. The deity we call government suggests we give thanks. Nice try. Maybe we should just do it.

[Dave Zuchelli is a graduate of Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and is currently pastor of Smith Chapel in Great Falls, VA.]

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