Do you ever wonder why we have Thanksgiving? Sure, we have all learned about the Pilgrims and their first feast in Plymouth. We have read about George Washington's issuing a proclamation that November 26, 1789 would be a day of national thanksgiving for the role of providence in creating the United States. We know that Abraham Lincoln's declaration of an annual federal celebration the fourth Thursday in November is what prompts our yearly migration to home and hearth.
No, I am talking about why as humans we feel the need to have any type of thanksgiving celebration at all. Almost all cultures going back many millennium have the need to have some type of yearly festival. Whether it was to appease the gods or to share in extra harvest abundance, why did we feel the need to give thanks?
I think it is because on some basic biological level we as humans know that there is something larger than ourselves at work in the world. Deep down we know that there is more than just our small existence and that we intrinsically look to something else for the bounty and situations in which we find ourselves.
I think in trying to understand why we give thinks, we should look at whom we thank- the earth, the stars, the moon, a human-made deity, a specific religious person?
I am in the C.S. Lewis camp that although differing religions have many similar values- truth, goodness, kindness, etc., Christianity is the only religion that can point to its founder as alive and living among us. Not to go into apologetics but there is historic evidence that the prophet Jesus was seen walking, eating, talking after his crucification. He is the true living God.
I think that it is that pull to God and Jesus that subconsciously draws us to gather and give thanks. Whether we consciously recognize it or not, we cannot rely on ourselves for all that we have received, nor can we be the ones in charge of our lives. Similar to Blaise Pascal's quote which in the vernacular has been quoted as "there is a God-shaped vacuum inside all of us." Below are the actual words from his book, Pensees, published in 1670:
“What else does this craving, and this helplessness, proclaim but that there was once in man a true happiness, of which all that now remains is the empty print and trace? This he tries in vain to fill with everything around him, seeking in things that are not there the help he cannot find in those that are, though none can help, since this infinite abyss can be filled only with an infinite and immutable object; in other words by God himself” - Blaise Pascal, Pensées VII(425)
Sure we have the pull of the obligatory family Thanksgiving gathering, but it goes beyond that: the practice of thanksgiving is good for our souls.
- We recognize that the blessings we have are not all from our own doing.
- We recognize that others also receive blessings not from their own doing.
- We can recognize that our experiences are not so bad when hearing about others' situations.
- We recognize that difficult and bad situations may have some positive aspects and that time can smooth out rough patches.
- We are humbled by that knowledge and perspective of our lives.
- We can then be open, compassionate and vulnerable to others and grateful for what we do and do not have.
- We recognize that there are some things that bear no explanation- it is only through the grace of God we are in the place where we are.
- We can then experience the authentic and abundant life of a grateful and thankful heart.
What about you? Why do you give thanks? Have you ever done a yearly inventory of your life? What is important to you? What do you believe? What are the positive and negative things in your life? Are there situations or experiences in your life that have no explanation? Is it an abyss that can only be filled with God? How about the people you know and love? Why do they give thanks? For what are you and they grateful? Does that ever connect you?
Why give thanks? It is an opportunity to be connected to others, to ourselves and to God.