The idea of a government-recognized holiday of national Thanksgiving seems a bit puzzling to me. If we have erected a strong wall of separation between the communities of faith and a secular government, how does this work?
I have written in the past about the experience of one of my daughters who came home from first grade with some Thanksgiving-inspired classroom art, crayoned Indians and Pilgrims. I asked her to tell me what she had learned about Thanksgiving in school, and she said it was a feast the Pilgrims gave to thank the Indians for helping them. For one of the few times in my life, I contacted a teacher and asked her what was up. This woman was a Christian and knew perfectly well that the “thanks to the Indians” explanation for Thanksgiving was a recent fabrication and accommodation, but she was basically afraid to say anything else in a public school. I advised her that I would prefer she not say anything than teach my child something that was not true.
A few years ago, I visited Plymouth Plantation near Boston with that same daughter. It is actually a sad place, where many, many people died from cold and starvation. The Pilgrims were sectarian Christians who sought a place to build a community where they could practice their faith without government or established church interference. I doubt if many of them knew how hard this would be, that their fathers, wives, and children would die within a few months. I can also imagine how overwhelmingly thankful they were after their first successful harvest, knowing they had enough food to last the winter. Were they grateful to the friendly Native Americans who had helped them? I’m sure. But mostly, they were thankful to God, their eternal Father, who had provided for them. It was a great reversal, for I doubt that many felt like offering thanks in the previous winter when they were starving and watching people die.
So, can we really take time to thank God on Thursday for all the blessings in our lives? Can we count them one by one? Can we pause the football games and hesitate in the feast truly to thank God for what he has given us?
And maybe the public schools could do this. It is too much to expect them to teach children to be thankful to God, I realize. But could they teach an accurate bit of history, that nearly four hundred years ago there was a small community of European Christians, trying to carve out a village on the inhospitable Massachusetts coast, who thanked their God as an act of faith, and set aside a time to rest from their hard labors and eat heartily as a community of faith?
I was at First Christian Church in Champaign, IL (where NCC grad Jason Epperson ministers) yesterday and they showed a little video called the “Thanksgiving Chair.” If you haven’t seen it, check it out.
Nebraska Christian College