Every year Americans by and large gather with friends or family or both to celebrate Thanksgiving. Traditionally, it’s a holiday centered around celebrating the harvest and the blessings you’ve experienced over the past year. But really, it’s a time when people find value in community. We may not all have the same traditions or be able to afford the same luxuries; some of us cook for loved ones and some of us cook for strangers; but all Thanksgiving celebrations happen in the context of community.
Thanksgiving is about community. Why? Because gratitude is shared.
Story #1 – Abe Lincoln and FDR
On October 3, 1863, during the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed a National Day of Thanksgiving to be celebrated on Thursday, November 26. It was his effort to encourage unity among the republic.
Fun fact: Thanksgiving was almost always the last Thursday in November until President Franklin D. Roosevelt moved it back a week. He was trying to start the Christmas shopping season early to boost the economy out of the Great Depression. This change didn’t go over well, and, after a joint resolution of Congress in 1941, Roosevelt issued a proclamation in 1942 designating the fourth Thursday in November (which is not always the last Thursday) as Thanksgiving Day.
Story #2 – Pilgrims and Native Americans
You probably learned about the “first thanksgiving” in school, a 1621 harvest feast shared by the Pilgrims of Plymouth and the Wampanoag people. The truth is, Native Americans had their own thanksgiving feasts before colonists arrived from England. Celebrating harvests is a cultural norm around the world!
Thanksgiving in Plymouth, MA began with a few colonists going “fowling,” and it’s recorded that they harvested enough to supply meat for their community of 50 people for a week. However, while they were preparing, 90 or so Wampanoag made a surprise appearance, bringing with them freshly harvested venison to contribute! Over the next few days, the two groups shared food (deer, duck, goose, fish, eels, shellfish, stews, vegetables) and games (races, target shooting, etc.).
The celebration ended with a peace treaty between the Puritans and the Wampanoag that would last over 50 years!
Story #3 – New England colonists
Thanksgiving celebrations were traditionally religious observances. They were times to thank God as a community for His provision and put trust in Him when tough times were coming.
In September 1620, the Mayflower left Plymouth, England, with 102 passengers—mostly Puritans looking to move to a place where they could freely exercise their faith without government oversight. They sailed into Cape Cod in November, and finally into Massachusetts Bay and arrived at Plymouth in December. Most of the colonists tried to brave the harsh, New England winter by staying on the boat that first winter—about half survived.
For new England colonists and Natives alike—winter was a deadly force. Bad weather could destroy your home. There were no crops left to harvest (they were all under snow) and most of the animals to hunt were sheltering from the cold as well. Winter was scary—you didn’t know if you were going to make it through—and there’s nothing that makes a hard circumstance impossible like a discouraged heart. The people needed a boost in morale.
Thanksgiving was the answer! Celebrations lasted three or more days and ended with a worship service! People would share from their provision needed to last them through the winter. It was a way of putting actions behind words. “We’re going to make it! God is going to sustain us. I’m going to prove it to you by sharing my lifeline.”
They would give thanks to God as a community and share with each other to boost their faith for the coming test. Gratitude makes a difference.
Story #4 – The Early Christian Explosion
Christianity, from the outside looking in, should have died many times over the first few hundred years. Early persecution in Jerusalem scattered Christians (Acts 8:1-3). In AD 70, Jerusalem, still the center of the Christian church, was laid to waste. Persecution from political and religious establishments, however, were unsuccessful in stomping out this movement called Christianity.
Why? What made the church of Jesus Christ not only survive, but thrive? God was doing a great work!
Christianity thrived because God worked signs and wonders to confirm the message of the Gospel being preached. And of all the signs and wonders God did, the greatest was the transformation he worked in the hearts of every type of person. Slaves, masters, men, women, rich, poor, reputable, lowly—everyone who experienced the saving power of Jesus Christ had a heart change that bonded them together.
This new community created by a new covenant stood out! Within one generation, churches were planted all over the known world (Antioch, Rome, Egypt, Babylonia).By the fourth century, the most powerful man in the world, Constantine, became a Christian, legalized Christianity, and later established it as the official religion of the Roman empire.
The gratitude saints had for God’s great gift of salvation sustained Christianity against all natural odds.
Story #5 – The Sinful Woman
In Luke 7:36-50, Jesus was eating at the house of Simon the Pharisee. A woman came in with a very expensive alabaster jar of perfume. Somehow, God had made her aware of His forgiveness—and she was overcome with gratitude. She poured the perfume on Jesus’ feet, washed them with her tears and her hair, even kissed them! Her lavish display of affection revealed her forgiven state. Jesus, looking at the woman, said to Simon, “Her sins, which are many, are forgiven—for she loved much.”
Story #6 – The Acts Church
In Acts chapter 4, Peter and John were arrested for preaching the resurrected Christ. They were threatened and told to preach no longer in the name of Jesus. Returning to the community of Christ, the church responded to these threats with a prayer meeting.
They pray for two things: boldness to preach, and signs and wonders to match. God answered their prayers immediately! “The place in which they were gathered together was shaken, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and continued to speak the word of God with boldness” (Acts 4:31).
But God’s answer to prayer continued beyond that shaking and speaking. Everyone began to share everything they owned—it all belonged to God now! People even sold their homes and gave the money to the church so that no one would need anything. The power of God to transform and unify the hearts of the church happened just as the apostles continued to preach about the resurrected Jesus. A resurrected community, rejoicing in and sharing a resurrected Savior.
Story #7 – Paul
Paul wrote the book of Philippians from prison. So, in chapter two, verses 14-18, when he told the saints to “do all things without grumbling or disputing,” his words carried some weight! He explained to the church that grumbling causes those who are supposed to be the light of the world to not shine. He asked that they not waist his suffering and laboring on their behalf by having the wrong attitude.
Instead, he tells the Philippian church to choose joy! He’s in prison, choosing to be glad and rejoice! “Likewise,” he says, “you also should be glad and rejoice with me.”
Story #8 – A Church in Poverty
In 2 Corinthians 8:1-5, Paul talks about the Macedonian believers. Here was a church living in “extreme poverty” and suffering “severe affliction.” Yet they begged Paul for the “favor” to give financially to God’s work.
How could believers in such humble circumstances give? Only by the grace of God! Verse 9 says, “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich.”
Because of the power of the Gospel, the church in Macedonia gave not only out of their poverty, but also with an abundance of joy! They valued what God was doing and trusted Him so firmly that God etched their testimony into the timeless pages of Scripture.
Story #9 – You
Thanksgiving is about community—specifically giving thanks to God with God’s community. And there’s nothing greater to be thankful for than the Gospel! These Thanksgiving stories are designed to encourage you. If you believe in the Gospel of Jesus Christ, you are joined with God and His Kingdom. There is confidence and joy that no matter what trials may come, you’re going to make it for His glory!
There is freedom in thanksgiving. You can be radically generous! Whatever God is leading you to do, you can do it! Here are a few encouragements for this thanksgiving:
- Let your public display of gratitude tell the story of God’s forgiveness
- The Gospel changes you—be the light of the world and watch it change others
- God’s kingdom is God’s provision for God’s people. If you trust in Him—He will hold you fast!