Thanksgiving is the quintessential American holiday. Or so we think.
We tend to believe that the Pilgrims invented the holiday when they held a feast to celebrate their successful fall harvest. However, they borrowed the tradition from the English.
And the English celebration is nowhere as ancient as the Japanese national holiday known as Kinro Kansha no Hi (“Labor Thanksgiving Day”), which goes back more than two thousand years. The Chinese have been celebrating their version of thanksgiving even longer, with a Mid-Autumn Festival that goes back 2,500 years.
Why is giving thanks such a universal phenomenon? Because it’s so good for us.
The relationship between optimism and health
One problem some of us face on this Thanksgiving Day is that we don’t feel like giving thanks. If we’re facing hardships, Thanksgiving can be more obligatory than celebratory.
However, it’s when we don’t feel like being thankful that we most need to be thankful.
Time recently published a fascinating article titled “6 Ways to Instantly Be a More Positive Person.” The author notes that optimism is essential to our overall health.
For instance, when Harvard researchers studied seventy thousand women over an eight-year period, they discovered that the most optimistic quartile had an almost 30 percent lower risk of dying from several major causes of death compared with women in the least optimistic quartile.
How can we be more positive, whatever our circumstances or challenges?
The Time article encourages us to “savor the good,” “set reminders” such as positive quotes where we can see them, “do something nice for someone else,” “phone a friend” for help with challenges, and “say thanks.” The last suggestion is important because, as one expert notes, our interpretation of events influences our emotions more than the events themselves.
“Reframe or divert”
At the top of Time‘s list, however, is this vital suggestion: “Reframe or divert.”
Psychologists encourage us to accept what we cannot change, then reframe the situation in a way that looks for opportunities in the midst of challenges. If we cannot do this, we should divert our attention elsewhere, focusing on something positive.
Reframing is an essential and transformational biblical principle.
We have been exploring this week the biblical command to “give thanks in all circumstances” (1 Thessalonians 5:18). I noted on Tuesday that Paul taught us to give thanks in our circumstances, not necessarily for them. But then I discovered this text: “Be filled with the Spirit . . . giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Ephesians 5:18, 20, my emphasis). Not in everything, but for everything.
How do we reconcile the two commands?
When we are in hard places, we can always find a reason to be grateful for them if we will focus not on the challenge but on God’s redemption.
I often note that God redeems all he allows. Sometimes he redeems challenges for a greater good by using them to guide us into a better future. (Remember that Joseph went from the pit to prison on his way to Pharaoh’s palace.) At other times, he uses difficulty to grow us spiritually. (Remember Paul’s “thorn in the flesh” that taught him greater dependence on the Lord.)
And sometimes, our Father redeems our present problems in ways we will not see until a future day. Paul testified: “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us” (Romans 8:18). In such times, we can choose to be thankful not for what our Father has done but for what he will do.
How life “becomes rich”
The first Thanksgiving in America was held by fifty-three pilgrims in 1621. While they celebrated their fall harvest, they mourned their forty-nine fellow colonists who had died of disease and starvation.
The first proclamation formalizing Thanksgiving as an annual holiday was issued by President Abraham Lincoln in 1863. Our nation was in the midst of the Civil War, which caused almost as many deaths as all our other wars combined.
Thanksgiving is God’s command to us because giving thanks is best for us. Not just today, but every day of the year. Not just in our present circumstances, but in “all circumstances” (1 Thessalonians 5:18).
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the martyred German theologian, noted: “It is only with gratitude that life becomes rich!”
How rich will you be today?