A Brief Theology of Thanksgiving

A Brief Theology of Thanksgiving

I. Origins

With apologies to the Pilgrims, the origins of the Thanksgiving holiday in the United States are more complicated than most people think.  Was the first Thanksgiving meal in present-day Massachusetts, complete with buckled, wide-brimmed hats, in 1621? Or was it an English celebration (different hats!) on the shores of Virginia, in 1619?  Or how about a Spanish gathering in what became Texas, in 1598 - or Florida, in 1565?

The reasons for those celebrations varied widely, of course. The English colonists in Virginia, for example, declared the day a commemoration of their arrival, thanking God for safe passage across a forbidding ocean; likewise, the Spanish explorers thanked God for survival.  President George Washington declared a national Day of Thanksgiving in 1789, to thank God for the birth of a new nation. The current annual date in late November - which is far too late, after all, for a “harvest festival” in New England! - wasn’t established until Abraham Lincoln’s declaration in 1863, explicitly giving thanks for the Union’s military successes in the Civil War.

II. Thanksgiving Today

So the holiday we inherit is a complex, morally ambivalent amalgam of different kinds of gratitude: for good harvest, for safe passage, for colonial conquest, for military victory.  All of which only presses the question, How will we celebrate Thanksgiving today?

Remembering this history, we may give thanks for the racial and cultural diversity all around us, including Native American communities. Giving thanks in this way, our gratitude can spur us to reach out, connect, and work together to create a more just and equitable world.

Likewise, remembering the holiday’s links to war, we may give thanks for times of peace: in our hearts, homes, neighborhoods, and between nations.  Remembering the holiday’s links to creation, we may give thanks for that nourishing abundance. Here, too, our gratitude can serve as inspiration, a little leaven in the loaf, to redouble our efforts to be genuine peacemakers, serve the hungry in our neighborhoods, and care for God’s good Earth, all creatures great and small.

III. The Difference Gratitude Makes

Finally, there’s perhaps no better day than Thanksgiving to reflect on the astounding power of gratitude itself - and accordingly, to commit ourselves to cultivating it more intentionally in our everyday lives.  

If we think of “gratitude” primarily as a kind of duty to discharge (Now remember to write that thank-you note!), we’re missing the boat entirely, effectively reducing one of life’s wonders to mere good manners.  On the contrary, gratitude is vital force in the world, a profoundly dignifying act that builds relationships, communities, and healthy human hearts.

The science on this is overwhelming: in study after study, gratitude has been shown to lead to stronger relationships, better sleep, lower blood pressure, fewer trips to the doctor, fewer depressive symptoms, more patience, and more perseverance, among other benefits (check out these study summaries here and here).  In one particularly intriguing study, gratitude turns out to be a powerful antidote to the “Headwinds/Tailwinds Asymmetry,” our all-too-common tendency to focus on obstacles (headwinds) and overlook blessings (tailwinds), an imbalance that over time leads to feeling aggrieved and resentful.  In short, focusing on headwinds breeds bitterness; focusing on tailwinds breeds appreciation - and the act of giving thanks helps turn our minds toward tailwinds.

IV. Being Grateful

OK, so gratitude is powerful - but how to make more of it in our lives?  It turns out that the most effective tools are some of the simplest and most familiar.  First, the basic act of not just counting our blessings but also recording them in a form we can revisit later - say, in a journal or diary - has been shown to significantly enhance feelings of thankfulness.  And another simple action has been shown to be even more effective: writing a letter of thanks to a friend, family member, acquaintance, or even a stranger. That’s right - thank-you notes can change your life! Indeed, we should reconceive the thank-you note not merely as a way to inform others about how grateful we are, but also as a way to help enhance how grateful we are in the first place.

The power of these simple practices makes sense: one of our most precious treasures is our time-and-attention, and how we spend that treasure will directly determine the health of our hearts (“For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:21)).  Will we spend it focusing on “headwinds,” thereby creating the perfect petri dish for growing resentments and narratives of grievance?  Or will we spend it focusing on “tailwinds,” and thereby nourish the soil for growing gratitude and narratives of appreciation? In short, gratitude journals and thank-you notes, simple as they may be, are concrete, intentional strategies for noticing - and more deeply experiencing - the blessings in our lives.

And so is prayer.  Viewed from this angle, prayer is a kind of spoken gratitude journal, an intimate thank-you note to God.  And so is worship. Properly practiced, worship is an elaborated exercise - a whole gymnasium! - for cultivating thanks and praise to God, and at its best, the result is a swirl of tailwinds, amazement, and joy.  And so is the Eucharist (from the Greek for “thanksgiving”), the Lord’s Supper, the Communion meal. Gathered around a table of bounty, remembering an old story, giving thanks to God for safe passage, for life, for peace, and for the strength to continue the pilgrimage anew.

In the end, then, we’re “pilgrims” after all.  So start (or revisit) a gratitude journal. Try writing a simple thank-you note once a week. Recommit to a practice of prayer. And let this Thanksgiving be not just a day of gratitude, but a springboard into a new life of gratitude, that most human and humanizing of gestures, the most graceful of all social graces.

Happy Thanksgiving!
The SALT Team