Honoring Thanksgiving’s Bittersweet Origins


Fortunate folks huddle into homes gleaming with smiles. Fall decor gilds each room, while spiced scents draw them to a massive banquet of joy. Hugs lead family and guests to fill the seats around a table brimming with all manner of sweets and starches. A plump turkey gleams at the center of a photo-ready dining set.

According to HGTV, Pinterest, and their standard-setting predecessor, Norman Rockwell, this is the classic American picture of Thanksgiving.

Yet, many of us walk into a far different picture during the holidays. Grief dims the atmosphere where empty chairs rest at the table. Canned corn and boxed potatoes stretch the less colorful meal, perhaps from a charitable donation or frozen dinner. Strife and suffering ladle an acidic sauce over the day. Some of us might opt to avoid the dining room altogether. If we ignore the traditions, perhaps Thanksgiving will let us pass through in peace.

The traditions fail to honor Thanksgiving’s origins, however. The root of this holiday had nothing to do with decor or pie. Thanksgiving certainly did not rest on a notion of privilege or sorrow-free ease. The first celebrations came upon the heels of bloody conflict, unthinkable losses, disease, and near-starvation. The settlers survived because of undeserved grace and amazing forgiveness shown to them by a formerly kidnapped and enslaved Pawtuxet tribe member named Squanto. Despite his horrific treatment by an English sea captain, Squanto taught them survival and brokered a life-saving treaty between the hopeless settlers and the local Wampanoag tribe.

Strife, discord, and death painted a bitter backdrop for the original Thanksgiving. In honor of its bittersweet reverence, fasting preceded the feasts during the first years of its celebration. Lincoln first established it as an official holiday during our nation’s deadly, brother-against-brother conflict, the Civil War.

It might seem unthinkable to celebrate gratitude in the midst of horror and pain. Yet the settlers and President Lincoln understood the truth of thankfulness. Our hearts hunger for worship, not merely when homes gleam with happiness, but perhaps most of all when pain has haunted their halls. The human soul starves for the gratitude it has not given. Suffering pares away the decorum. We are left to face what matters, so we may choose to give thanks for eternal blessings instead of only for the things we eat today and regret tomorrow.

This Thanksgiving, let’s honor the message of grace, reach out with compassion to the suffering around us (deserving or not), and worship the ONE Who is with us no matter the circumstances. Our journey to the Land of Promise might not reflect the peace of a Norman Rockwell scene or glisten like a Pinterest image. Suffering daunts us on the path through this broken earth’s life, but we do not have to face it alone. Christ offers to share in our sufferings and sustain us through troubled times. Let us gratefully share the bread of our hope with other starving sojourners. Remember with me this week the bittersweet origin of Thanksgiving and the glorious future our faith promises as we worship.


Be Encouraged,



For more on the history of Thanksgiving, check out the History site.

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