Thanksgiving celebrations, on American soil, predate the Pilgrims. Spanish explorers celebrated a day of thanksgiving in 1541 (Palo Duro Canyon, Texas), and again, in 1598 (El Paso, Texas). French Huguenot colonists did so in 1564 (Saint Augustine, Florida). English settlers did so in 1607 (near Jamestown, Virginia) and in 1619 (Berkeley Plantation, Virginia). Other celebrations could be mentioned (David Barton, Celebrating Thanksgiving in America).
However, the first Thanksgiving, we usually learn of, is of Pilgrim’s celebration in Plymouth Colony, Massachusetts, in 1621. This harvest festival/thanksgiving lasted three days. It was observed by 53 pilgrims (survivor of the original 102 Mayflower pilgrims). They were joined by 90 Native Americans from the Wampanoag tribe (The History of The First Thanksgiving, historyofmassachusetts.org).
Other thanksgivings occurred. Make no mistake; thanksgiving was offered to God. In 1623, William Bradford, Governor of Massachusetts declared, “render thanksgiving to… Almighty God for all His blessings” (The History and Legacy of Thanksgiving, patriotpost.us).
President George Washington proclaimed a day of Thanksgiving in 1789. He wrote, “Whereas it is the duty of all nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God… I do recommend and assign Thursday the 26th day of November next be devoted by the people of these states to the service of the great and glorious Being, who is the beneficent Author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be. That we may then all unite in rendering unto him our sincere and humble thanks…” (William J. Bennett, Our Sacred Honor, pp. 386-387).
President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed a national day of thanksgiving in 1863. He wrote, “I do invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States… to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens” (Thanksgiving Proclamation, abrahamlincolnonline.org). Thanksgiving became an annual day of Thanksgiving, an official national holiday, beginning with Lincoln.
Franklin D. Roosevelt, in 1939, moved the observance of Thanksgiving from the last Thursday in November to the fourth Thursday (there were five Thursdays that year). This was done to give merchants a longer Christmas shopping season (Thanksgiving and Black Friday: Why FDR changed the Holiday, time.com). He made the change official by law in 1941 (ibid).
Is it acceptable for nations to have such a day set aside for giving thanks to God? I believe that it is. Consider: (1) In the Old Testament, the King of Nineveh called for the city’s residents to fast, pray, and repent (Jonah 3:6-9). God accepted this (Jonah 3:10). (2) Some kings, and leaders among the Jews, did similar things. Here are a few examples. (a) Jehoshaphat proclaimed a fast (2 Chronicles 20:2-4). (b) Josiah called a special assembly for the reading of the Book of the Covenant (2 Chronicles 34:29-30). (c) Ezra proclaimed a fast, and the people fasted and prayed. Moreover, God answered their prayer (Ezra 8:21-23). Other such examples could be given. (3) Jesus seems to at least tolerate the Feast of Dedication or Hanukkah (John 10:22-23). There is no indication that He was displeased. Remember that this national holiday was instituted after the close of the Old Testament canon, during the period of prophetic silence. (4) Is it ever wrong to be thankful? I find nothing to indicate that it is. We are to “be thankful” (Colossian 3:15). We are to give thanks “in everything” (1 Thessalonians 5:18). Whatever we go through in this life, should not stop our thanksgiving to God. He makes possible a peace which passes all understanding (Philippians 4:7; John 16:33; Romans 8:18, 35-39; 2 Corinthians 4:16-5:1). We are to give thanks “for all things” (Ephesians 5:20). This does not mean that we should be thankful for everything done (e.g. sins against self, sins against others, sins against God). It means that we should be thankful for everything, for which it is appropriate to be thankful. However, let us remember that even difficulties and hardships can be used for good (2 Corinthians 12:7-10; James 1:2-4; Romans 5:1-5; Genesis 50:20). Let us remember: “all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose” (Romans 8:28). The Christian, especially, has reason to be thankful – and should ever be.
Do not forget to be thankful this Thanksgiving. Enjoy the family, friends, food, and maybe some football; but, remember to be thankful. Moreover, take time to give thanks to God the Father through our Lord Jesus Christ.
Furthermore, do not stop there. Live each day in thanksgiving to God. “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and comes down from the Father of lights” (James 1:17).