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Eating pigeon and eel at the first Thanksgiving: Why and how to make today’s holiday a transforming lifestyle of gratitude

Dr. Jim Denison is a cultural apologist who helps people respond biblically and redemptively to the vital issues of our day. He is also the co-founder and Chief Vision Officer of the Denison Forum, a Dallas-based nonprofit that comments on current issues through a biblical lens.

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Eating pigeon and eel at the first Thanksgiving: Why and how to make today's holiday a transforming lifestyle of gratitude
© sonyakamoz/stock.adobe.com

Apparently, most of what we think we know about today’s Thanksgiving meal is wrong.

The Pilgrims shared a harvest celebration with local Wampanoag Indians in 1621 at which they may have eaten turkey, but it’s more likely that goose or pigeon was served. Side dishes were eel and lobster, since potatoes hadn’t yet been planted in America and cranberry sauce hadn’t been invented.

We hear every year that eating turkey explains our post-meal nap because the meat contains a drowsiness-inducing amino acid called tryptophan. It does, in fact, but so do all protein sources and even vegetables. Turkey actually has less of this amino acid than chicken.

When it comes to carving a turkey, apparently most of us are doing that wrong as well, as this video explains. And deep-frying a frozen turkey can be a very bad idea; the National Fire Protection Association reports that deep fryer fires cause an average of five deaths, sixty injuries, and more than $15 million in property damage each year. (If you’re wondering why frozen turkeys can explode in such fryers, consult this explanatory article by a chemist. I’ll take the firefighters’ word for it.)

Benjamin Franklin documented another wrong way to prepare a turkey: he tried to electrocute one, believing that it would then become “uncommonly tender.” In fact, he shocked himself instead, causing “a universal blow through my whole body from head to foot.”

If you’re traveling this holiday, you are already experiencing personally what the TSA is estimating: twenty million passengers will fly between November 19 and November 28, about two million people a day. The auto club AAA predicts that 48.3 million people will travel at least fifty miles from their home over the Thanksgiving holiday. As one symptom of the transportation rush, car rental prices are 75 percent higher than in 2019.

Is today God’s favorite holiday?

Despite the falsehoods and challenges of Thanksgiving, today’s holiday is vital for our souls. In fact, of all the holidays Americans observe, this is the only one mandated by Scripture. The Bible nowhere commands us to celebrate the new year on January 1, Mother’s Day or Father’s Day, or the rest of our secular holidays. It does not even mandate that we set aside a specific Sunday to celebrate the birth or the resurrection of Jesus.

But Scripture is adamant in 1 Thessalonians 5:18: “Give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” Give thanks is a present active imperative in the Greek, an ongoing command literally translated, “Always and at all times give thanks.” In all circumstances allows for no exceptions or loopholes. No matter what dark and difficult challenges we might be facing or feeling, we are to “give thanks” to God.

The text reinforces this imperative: This is the will of God in Christ Jesus. Nowhere else in Scripture do we find this precise command. For you employs the second person plural, literally translated “for all of you without exception.”

Given this clear command, might we say that Thanksgiving is God’s favorite holiday?

Why does God require thanksgiving?

Why does our Lord insist on such constant, consistent, unconditional giving of thanks to him?

Let’s first dispense with the wrong answer: God does not require our thanksgiving because he is an egotist or insecure. He is “the King of ages, immortal, invisible, the only God” (1 Timothy 1:17). He does not need the affirmation of finite and fallen humans to feel better about himself.

Rather, he calls us to give thanks in all circumstances because such gratitude defines us properly as dependent creatures of an omnipotent Creator. It defeats the will to power that tempts all fallen people to be their own god (Genesis 3:5). It thus positions us to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:17) and receive his best (Matthew 7:7–11) and share it with fellow Christians and the world at large (Galatians 6:10). Such gratitude has been shown to bring enormous benefits to those who practice it daily.

But there’s a catch: if we give thanks so that God will bless us in return, our transactional commercialism defeats the purpose. It makes us the creator and God our creature. It puts God under our thumb rather than on our throne.

Better to give thanks out of genuine gratitude for the grace of our loving God and leave his response to his benevolent sovereignty.

How can thanksgiving become a transforming lifestyle?

How can we best “give thanks in all circumstances”? There’s a personal and a public answer to our question.

Personally, you and I need to develop an ongoing attitude of gratitude.

If we will turn the events and circumstances of our days into fuel for thanksgiving, our spiritual engine will never run dry. I tried this myself yesterday morning in preparation for today’s Daily Article. During my morning walk, I noticed for the first time the pavement beneath my feet and gave thanks for those who poured it. I noticed the mailboxes along the curb and gave thanks for those who deliver mail to us.

I gave thanks for the peace and security that enabled me to walk in our neighborhood, circumstances many in our conflicted world do not experience. I gave thanks for the health to be able to walk, a capacity many do not share. I gave thanks for lungs with which to breathe and eyes with which to see. The longer I spent in such specific thanksgiving, the more worshipful my time became and the more my soul was filled with praise to the Giver of “every good gift” (James 1:17).

I encourage you to try the spiritual discipline of thanksgiving for yourself today.

Publicly, we need to share our gratitude with others.

The news leading up to today’s holiday was filled with articles on navigating the time with family and acquaintances. We learn about the stress of talking politics with those who disagree and are given practical ways to do so. One article tells us “how to fact-check your family at the Thanksgiving dinner table.” Another exhorts us not to avoid difficult conversations about race during the holiday. We are even told to “appoint a Thanksgiving COVID bouncer” to test relatives and friends for the virus before they enter our homes.

However, the best article I have seen on navigating challenging conversations during the holidays comes from Denison Forum writer Steve Yount, a former newspaper editor who offers three practical steps and “thirty questions to help you seek common ground.”

Five urgent questions

God is passionately calling us to lives of personal and public gratitude for his daily, indispensable provisions for us.

How, then, must he grieve when we make thanksgiving into a brief prayer over a meal on a day devoted to football and shopping?

How must he rejoice when his children “enter his gates with thanksgiving” (Psalm 100:4) and experience his life-changing presence through an attitude of gratitude?

How different would our culture be if all Christians made Thanksgiving not an annual holiday but a consistent lifestyle?

If not you and me, who?

If not now, when?