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Tim Johnson: The transformation of Thanksgiving

dfox • Nov 27, 2015 at 6:00 PM

When Christ enters the heart, and the Holy Spirit begins that transformation process; bringing the proud to humility, taking the greedy heart to a generous nature, changing a person’s desires from selfish to loving. The list goes on, and these are good things. 

However, there are times in an individual’s life when a transformation is not a good thing. A person may go into depression because of a lost love. There have been people who have become alcoholics because of a major tragedy in life has sent them into a downward spiral. Sometimes, a person experiences a financial success, and they seem to turn from a giving nature to one of greed. The list goes on, and these are bad things. 

The American holiday, Thanksgiving has transformed over the centuries. 

The early Thanksgiving Days, centered around events that caused a feeling of gratitude and thanks within the hearts of the people. 

What is commonly known as the “first Thanksgiving” and the origin of the American holiday is the feast of October 1621. Gov. William Bradford and the rest of the pilgrims invited the nearby Chief Massasoit and the rest of the Wampanoag tribe to a Thanksgiving feast celebrating the year’s bountiful harvest.

Because of the popularity of the Plymouth colony story, four Thanksgiving celebrations occurring before 1621 have all but been lost in obscurity.

In 1959, The Texas Society Daughters of American Colonist recognized the “first Thanksgiving” taking place May 29, 1541, a full eighty years before Plymouth. Explorer Francisco Vasquez de Coronado had led 1,500 men from Mexico into what is now Texas in search for gold. Nearly out of supplies and failing at their mission, the men were thinking more about survival than riches. The expedition camped at the Palo Duro Canyon located in what is now the Texas panhandle. Hunters from the group were able to kill a few buffalo ensuring food for the group. Shortly after the hunt was Ascension Day, the day celebrating Christ’s ascension back into heaven. Coronado proclaimed a feast of thanksgiving. 

French colonist observed a day of Thanksgiving at their settlement near what is now Jacksonville Florida on June 30, 1564.

The first Thanksgiving celebration including Pilgrims and Indians actually happened in Maine on Aug. 9, 1607. The colony of Fort Saint George, founded by Capt. George Popham, invited the Abnaki Indians to a day of thankfulness to God and prayer. 

Moving on to the spring 1610, after English supply ships arrived with food,  Colonists in Jamestown Virginia held a Thanksgiving prayer service. The harsh winter created a famine that decimated the settlers. The group started with 490 members and reduced to only 60 survivors who resorted to desperate measures such as eating their horses.

Food was at the center of the early Thanksgivings as bountiful harvests, hunting success and the arrival of supplies were the reasons for the colonist to praise God and give Him thanks.

Once the War for Independence started the primary reason for Thanksgiving celebrations moved from the supply of food to military victories. Gen. George Washington proclaimed Dec. 18, 1777, a day “for Solemn Thanksgiving and Praise” because of the victory at Saratoga. This day of thanks and praise was celebrated throughout all thirteen colonies. Throughout the war with Britain the Continental Congress issued a day of Thanksgiving at least once a year, following American victories.

After the War for Independence, President Madison declared April 13, 1815 a national day of “prayer and thanksgiving” because of the end of the War of 1812. The federal government did not declare a day of Thanksgiving again until President Abraham Lincoln did so in 1863. America has celebrated Thanksgiving Day annually ever since.

When did other American Thanksgiving Day traditions begin? 

We’ve been eating turkey since the pilgrims. 

The American Intercollegiate Football Association held its first championship game on Thanksgiving Day 1876. Princeton played Yale to a scoreless tie. The first NFL Thanksgiving Day game was in 1934 between the Bears and Lions in Detroit. The first time the game appeared on television was 1956.

Macy’s first Thanksgiving Day parade was in 1924 and has signaled the beginning of the Christmas shopping season ever since. 

America’s Thanksgiving Day has transformed since the days of William Bradford and earlier with Coronado. It is no longer a self-generated day of praise and thanksgiving for God’s provision. Instead of reading the Bible and talking to God in prayer before the large dinner of turkey, cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes, and all the rest, we read the sale ads to plan our shopping route after the feast. 

People, families, nations transform over time. Transformation should be a good thing, but sometimes it is not a good thing. 

Preacher Tim Johnson is pastor of Countryside Baptist Church in Parke County, Ind. Email him at preacherspoint@gmail.com or visit preacherjohnson.com. 

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