The worst time for an atheist, it is said, is when he is grateful and he has no one to thank. While Thanksgiving can be a day of unadorned gluttony and football for such, it is doubly satisfying for the believer, who is thankful both for the provision, and for the One to thank.
Thanksgiving is celebratory and solemn for the believer. It is a celebration of bounty—material, spiritual, relationship, or social; and it is a celebration of a sovereign God who is present and active in both the good times and the bad.
It is a solemn affair because it forces a realistic reflection of personal undeservedness, and an awareness that most in our world do not enjoy most of the personal pleasures, freedoms, and promise that we take for granted.
The first Thanksgiving feast was celebrated in 1621 after a devastating winter in which nearly half of the new arrivals at Plymouth Bay Colony had died. Then, during a time of drought the 1623 proclamation of prayer and fasting was changed to another thanksgiving celebration when rains came during the prayer.
Throughout American history, there were many thanksgiving proclamations and celebrations. In 1789, George Washington proclaimed a National Thanksgiving Day on the last Thursday in November, in honor of the new U.S. Constitution. Thomas Jefferson later discontinued it, calling such a proclamation “a kingly practice.”
The tradition was resurrected by Abraham Lincoln who, in 1863, proclaimed Thanksgiving a national holiday. American presidents have issued Thanksgiving proclamations every year since.
As with most of our religious holidays, Thanksgiving endures in the “naked public square” of modernity because the ACLU can find a secular application—they can just be thankful to the Constitution or the Indians, or to no one. But in reality, American observations through the years have a common thread. In the best of times and in the worst of times, the thanks are offered to God.