Bible | Movies | Books | People | Hot Topics | Holidays | Humor | Gallery | Sermons | Prayer | Quizzes | Communities | God | FAQ | Links

The Essence of Thanksgiving

Suddenly it's upon us. It seems only yesterday that we were back from our summer vacations, and the long weeks of fall seemed to stretch before us almost without end. But now it's practically Thanksgiving, and Christmas is soon to follow.

As Thanksgiving draws near, we are very much aware of the arrangements that must be made for the celebration. Grocery shopping, guests to be invited, travel arrangements to be confirmed, calculations on the cooking of the bird. For most of us the machinery of Thanksgiving has already been set into motion, and in just a few days we will sit down to share a Thanksgiving supper. But as Christians we must ask, what is the inner meaning of this holiday? What is the fitting symbol of Thanksgiving?

A traveler from Mars, looking down upon millions of homes across America this Thanksgiving morning might easily be confused. For the sight of all those faces, those wide eyes, those expressions of wonder and delight as the turkey is brought to the table might lead our Martian visitor to the hasty conclusion that we gather each year to worship the turkey goddess.

Indeed for some people the turkey is the essence of this day. And not without reason. The wild turkeys which were consumed that first Thanksgiving were a proud an noble work: rugged, feisty, strong flying birds. The wild turkey could soar for miles in graceful flight. But what a pathetic symbol our modern domesticated bird has become. This animal is tied securely to earth by its sheer size. It is fitted with short legs, stocky neck, bloated body, a microscopic brain. Which may help to explain the popular saying: "He's as dumb as a turkey."

"They are the dumbest birds in all the world," comments one turkey breeder. "They don't realize how big they are and are easily bullied by chickens and ducks. Given the opportunity, the chickens will immediately run through an open gate to grange, but the turkeys will run back and forth along the fence, looking for a way out, but never reaching the gate." When they are young, you have to put marbles in their food pans to teach them to eat. They'll peck at the shiny objects and finally get some feed by accident. Even rain is a mortal enemy. The turkeys are apt to raise their heads and open their beaks to drink the rain water, and if they are not driven into shelter, they will stand that way, with their mouths wide open until they drown.

Obviously the turkey is not an entirely fitting symbol for Thanksgiving. Perhaps are more fitting symbol of Thanksgiving would be that picture postcard image we all hold of that first Thanksgiving feast. There stand the hearty Pilgrims, gathered around the fruit of the harvest. Bound by a common faith, they seem the very image of fortitude in the face of adversity.

As we look back across these 300 years and compare their situation with our own, its tempting to be nostalgic about the past. If we could only find the courage and the confidence which made that first Thanksgiving possible, perhaps our problems would seem less daunting. But wait just a minute, before we are carried away by nostalgia, it might serve us well to take a closer look at the reality that lies hidden behind those greeting card images of Thanksgiving.

In the first place, the Puritans were a minority in the settlements of Plymouth and Salem. Little more than a third of the passengers on the Mayflower had come to this land seeking religious freedom. The rest had been hired on the streets of London by wealthy financiers who hoped to reap a profit from this adventure in the New World. Most of the passengers had come along simply because they could not find employment in London and this was the best pay they could get. Most of the Mayflower passengers came for the ranks of the homeless and the unemployed.

The historic Mayflower compact was forced upon these workers by a Puritan minority who ruled with unswerving authority. Democracy, freedom of choice, equal opportunity, these are relatively modern ideas which would have scandalized our Puritan ancestors. Take for example, John Winthrop, first governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Far from seeking religious freedom, he wanted power to set up a government where his religion would be imposed upon the whole population. These ambitions had been frustrated in England because in 1630 the Puritans were out of power.

This gentleman would have found our concept of democracy distasteful in the extreme. For he believed in a divinely ordained social order. By the will of God, he believed, the rich wold continue to be rich and the poor would remain poor, forever frozen at the bottom of the social order. He did not even believe the poor should have the right to vote. And he fought a long and hard battle in the new world to suppress what he thought to be the pernicious idea of universal suffrage.

Just before disembarking from the good ship Arabella, Winthrop delivered himself of a sermon to the passengers gathered before him on the deck. His sermon was titled: A Model of Christian Charity. But it began with these stark words: "God Almighty in his most holy providence has so disposed the condition of mankind as in all times some must be rich, some poor, some high in power...others in subjection."

That's a reasonable sermon to give if you're the wealthy aristocrat, but I suspect that the crew was somewhat less than ecstatic about his thundering oration. Moreover, February 22, 1631, the date that marked the first official Thanksgiving, was not a day of celebration as we imagine. It was a day of fasting, a time for sober reflection. For the leaders of Massachusetts Bay did not want a recurrence of the feast that had taken place the previous fall. The Puritans preferred to fast. Give thanks to God, but give up the food and drink that we have come to associate with Thanksgiving. They would have seen our typical Thanksgiving supper as a sign of moral decadence and decay.

In fact, the people who bowed their heads in the makeshift chapels of Massachusetts during the fast days of 1631 were there by order of the Governor himself. Anyone counted absent from worship could have been tried in the courts, because failure to attend church was an offense punishable by law. On second thought, those picture postcard images of the first Thanksgiving may not be an entirely fitting symbol for this holiday either.

And what about the horn of plenty? Is the essence of this holiday a matter of giving thanks for the many material blessings we have received over the months gone by? Do we give thanks simply because we have enough food to eat, because our bank accounts are balanced, because we enjoy a measure of affluence equaled by few in the entire world?

The gospel lesson for Thanksgiving Day (Luke 12: 13-21) that is read in many of our churches seems to dispel this understanding of Thanksgiving as well. In the parable of the "rich fool," Jesus tells the story of a man whose horn of plenty is filled to overflowing. Here is a man who has much to be thankful for. He has been blessed by success in business. In fact, he has had so much success that he has to construct a row of large warehouses to store his surplus crops.

The parable captures our man giving thanks on the very day these new warehouses are complete. We catch him almost gloating to himself: "Yes, sir, you have ample goods for many years, take your ease, eat, drink and be merry," he says to himself. We picture him puffing with satisfaction after a hearty meal. But his thanksgiving celebration is interrupted later that night by a vision or a dream. Think how terrifying it would be to wake up in the middle of the night and hear the voice of God Almighty saying to you as God does to the man in this parable, "Fool! This night your soul is required of you. All these things that you have prepared for yourself, who will they belong to now?"

And Jesus concludes the parable: "So is he who lays up treasure for himself and is not rich towards God." This parable presents a stark but simple choice. Either we build up treasures for self, earthen treasures which in the end have no value or we turn our focus outward, beyond the self, becoming rich in the eyes of God. But what precisely does it mean to become wealthy in God's sight? The treasures of this world can be counted and measured. One can call up the local bank to find very precise information about a person's cash flow; a credit agency can give you the details about a person's treasure on earth. But how do we take the measure of spiritual wealth?

Certainly the depth of our faith cannot be measured by the superficial smiles we have been trained to wear in public places; certainly the quality of our faith cannot be guaranteed by verbal assurances that all things are bright and beautiful. The path toward God may be filled with obstacles; there may be suffering and pain along the way. After all, that was true of Jesus Christ himself.

Remember that lonely night in Gethsemene. He too heard the death knoll sound. This night shall your soul be required. And he knew is was not just the soul which was being put to the test. His body too was broken.

It is my responsibility as a Christian minister to remind you that the central symbol of our faith is not the horn of plenty but precisely the cross of suffering. In the final hours of his life, Jesus could count no earthen treasures. In fact, he had been stripped to all the blessings we count as necessary for a happy life. He had no home and no career. His family had been estranged from him. In his hour of need even his closest friends had betrayed him. His body was broken and his spirit was crushed. As the Scriptures put it so poetically: "Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have trees, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head." By all human reckoning at that moment of suffering he was alone. Yet he was not alone. For in fact he was acting out in all its stark simplicity the drama of our lives.

When you strip away every illusion of success. When all earthen treasures fail. There is only one thing remaining, but that is the greatest treasure of all, the love of God our Creator.

If we are to celebrate thanksgiving with prayers of praise that will not fade. If we are to give thanks with smiles that are more than superficial, we must set our priorities straight. The essence of Thanksgiving is not to be found in the cost of the goods and services that may fill our horn of plenty. The important things are the resources we bring to adversity. What strength can we call upon when these earthen treasure fail? What answer do we have when, in the dark night of the soul, our very lives are required?

The problem for may of us is that we allow the process of counting our blessings to deteriorate into the habit of counting upon our blessings. We are proud, rightly proud, to be the richest nation on earth. But we are anxious, overly anxious, to maintain our privileges and power. We are proud, rightly proud, of our personal achievements, but we are anxious, overly anxious to maintain an image of success. We are threatened buy the vicissitudes of job or career, endangered by the uncertainties of the economy, worried by the loss of health and vitality. When the act of counting our blessings leads to the anxious condition of counting upon our blessings then the meaning of thanksgiving is diminished.

But according to Biblical witness thanksgiving is something we do when the troubles of the world are still very much with us. It's not a question of waiting for that moment of euphoria when you seem to be carried away on a crescendo of good feeling. To give thanks is to take up the tangled threads of your life and present them to God come what may. Thanksgiving involves an act of the will. It's not a question of pretending that everything is bright an beautiful when you know its not.

To give thanks is to stand up in the face of the storm and declare that life is worth living. To give thanks is to assert that the whole of creation is one great act of God's love. May we give thanks this Thanksgiving, not because all things are good or easy, but simply because we know that this troubled world with all its evil and all its good is cradled in the arms of a loving God. Amen.

Thanksgiving: Mirror Unto The Soul of a Nation
"A nation divided cannot stand," said Abraham Lincoln, paraphrasing Scripture. But with a bit of luck, some ordinary patience and understanding, and a touch of grace, it can. Here's how.

Thanksgiving Prayers

The Date of Thanksgiving

Charles Henderson

You are invited to join our Forum
and discuss any issues
pertaining to faith or the search for it.
Your comments are published here instantly.
CrossCurrents Forum

(To see the current list of topics your browser must allow Active Content)

Recent Discussions

Please take a moment to let us know you were here!  
Just send us an email to subscribe to our free newsletter.

For those who prefer a form: Click here to subscribe.

If you want to talk with someone in person,  please feel free to call 212-864-5436
The Rev. Charles P. Henderson is a Presbyterian minister and Executive Director of
He is the author of God and Science (John Knox Press, 1986).  
A revised and expanded version of the book is appearing here.
God and Science (Hypertext Edition, 2005).
He is also editor of a new book, featuring articles by world class scientists and theologians, and illustrating the leading views on the relationship between science and religion:
Faith, Science and the Future (CrossCurrents Press, 2007).

Charles also tracks the boundry between the virtual and the real at his blog: Next World Design, focusing on the mediation of art, science and spirituality in the metaverse.  

For more information about Charles Henderson.