Is Thanksgiving a Distinctively Christian Practice?

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Thanksgiving is here again.  Unfortunately, its proximity to Christmas has turned it into a warm up act to Black Friday.  To add to that, the NFL has successfully established itself as a Thanksgiving tradition just as fitting as the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and grandma’s pumpkin pie.  Indeed one could also argue that the annual tradition of feasting in honor of “Thanksgiving” is itself a diversion from the original spirit and purpose of the holiday. But my purpose is not to complain about how this wonderful Christian holiday has been supplanted by Shopping and football.   Instead, I want to re-introduce the notion that Thanksgiving is a Christian holiday.

Webster to whom we Americans have turned for the official meaning of words for the last 175 years, defines “Thanksgiving” as a the act of giving thanks, a public acknowledgement or celebration of divine goodness; a prayer expressing gratitude.”  Note the distinctly religious and even Christian flavor of this definition, suggesting that true thanksgiving includes a conversation between man and God.  Thanksgiving in its purest and most rational form is spiritual and recognizes the goodness, providence and mercies of God.


Some will argue that such a definition excludes the unbeliever from the practice of thanksgiving; that thanksgiving as a distinctly religious and even Christian exercise should therefore be rejected.  So can an unbelieving, non religious person be thankful without invoking God?  Can Sam Harris, the notable American athiest, engage in true thanksgiving today?  Most would likely say “yes.”  But I would propose a challenge to this response  If you’re curious, read on.

To be sure, I cannot read my own heart very well, not to mention Harris’ mind and heart.  I am sure that Harris, and other unbelievers, skeptics and non-Christians find plenty of good things for which to be grateful on a day such as this.  They can cite the gifts of family, friends, health, and even life itself as treasures for which they can be grateful.  And we might add that we all can and should be grateful for such things.  We shoud recognize those in our lives who have impacted us through their investments in our well-being, our relationship and comfort.  Spouses, parents and children should be thanked for their love for us; Doctors, nurses and other health professionals should be recognized for their service to us;  Teachers, mentors and coaches should be praised for their patience and dedication to us;  civil servants–fire, police–should receive our blessing of gratitude as well.

imageOne can feel gratitude for others without invoking God.  However, this merely “kicks the can down the road.”  For once your spouse, physician or local firefighter is thanked, who do they have to thank?  Traced back to the origin of goodness, every blessing, every gift originates somewhere else.  None of us are first sources of goodness.  We all have had blessings and gifts poured into us.  To simply express thanksgiving to another human being or even to the universe is to shift the duty of thanksgiving off of one creature and onto another.  Only when we acknowledge the goodness of God as a First Source of goodness can we really finish the circle of Thanksgiving.  James 1:17 claims that “…every good and perfect gift is from above and comes down from the Father of Lights…”  Only God is worthy to receive our offerings of Thanksgiving.