Happy Thanksgiving, America! Today marks the 152nd annual Thanksgiving celebration, and of course, there were local thanksgiving celebrations and ceremonies for a couple of centuries before President Abraham Lincoln made it a national holiday in 1863. Since then, it’s been a time for family and friends to gather around the table, a time to enjoy recreation and one another’s company, and most importantly, a time to give thanks. This, as the holiday’s title suggests, is the very reason for the celebration. It’s why people travel across the country and even across the world to spend time with their families: to take time out of our hectic lives to be truly grateful.
The biggest question that all of this should inspire is: thankful to Whom? That is, if we’re celebrating “thanksgiving,” just Who are we giving thanks to? The verb “thank” is defined as “to express gratitude, appreciation, or acknowledgment to,” and it needs an object. I don’t just “thank.” I thank someone. Sometimes, that’s another person. There are plenty of people in our lives — those we’re close to, but also those who help the country and the world in myriad unsung ways — who are worthy of our gratitude. But for some blessings, the only logical object of my gratitude is God.
The first thanksgivings were clear about who they were thanking. Whether we’re talking about the Spaniards’ first Thanksgiving Mass in St. Augustine, Florida, in 1565, or the Pilgrims’ more famous Thanksgiving in 1621, these were specifically-religious acts of giving thanks to God. To be certain, there have always been plenty of others to thank, as well: for example, there likely wouldn’t have been any Pilgrims around to celebrate the 1621 Thanksgiving but for the gracious assistance of the Wampanoag Indians. So the specifically-religious act of thanking God never came at the expense of thanking neighbor. But it’s this aspect of thanking God that is at the center of the holiday, and Thanksgiving just doesn’t make sense without it.
Without recognition of God, it’s impossible to be thankful for certain blessings. The whole language is constructed around this reality. If we say we’re “blessed,” we’re using explicitly religious language (the root means “to consecrate, make holy, give thanks,”). Say you’re “gifted,” and you’re acknowledging the divine origin of your talents… and even that term “talents” refers to the gifts given by God in Matthew 25:14-30.
Strip away all of this language of gratitude and thanksgiving (since there’s no recipient, if you don’t recognize God), and what are you left with? Only the language of happiness and lucky. You’re “happy” that you’ve got comforts in your life, your job promotion “pleases” you, or the joys of this past year make you feel “lucky” (itself a strange sort of gratitude to blind Fortune). There’s nothing wrong with these sentiments, but they fall far short of anything worthy of a quasi-solemn holiday like Thanksgiving. More importantly, they fall far short of what we experience. We don’t just experience a lucky feeling that we’ve been endowed with so many talents. We feel blessed, and we feel thankful. This gratitude is worth celebrating, and it’s worth noticing and acknowledging, because it points beyond us towards the Giver of all Good Gifts (James 1:17).