A walk through a JC Penney department store in late October proclaimed the Christmas holiday in full swing. Garlands with red and green balls dangled from the ceiling and Santa references adorned walls and displays. One would think December 25 mere days away instead of eight-plus weeks in the future.
With more retailers pushing Christmas by putting up decorations and advertising holiday items before Halloween, the November holiday of Thanksgiving has been pushed to the margins of our busy lives. "I think what has happened is that we have put the â holidays' into one big blob," says Judy Christie, author of Hurry Less, Worry Less at Christmas: Having the Holiday Season You Long For. " We tend to always be looking ahead â ” we don't enjoy each moment the way we could. … It's really part of our culture to rush ahead."
Over the years, the original religious meaning of Thanksgiving has been vanishing from the day, along with its place as a separate holiday. Today's Thanksgiving feasts now usually consists of lots of food, fellowship and football. Less emphasis is on thanking God for his good providence in the lives of the participants. This is a marked departure from the early celebrations, which were tied to gratitude of God's mercy and provision.
Indeed, the whole purpose of the first Thanksgiving was to give thanks to God for a successful corn harvest. On a November day in 1621, Pilgrims from Plymouth Colony in Massachusetts invited the Wampanoag Indians to share a feast. That celebration, which became known as America's first Thanksgiving, was followed by a second celebration two years later to give thanks to God after the end of a long drought. Throughout the New England colonies from that time onward, days of thanksgiving and fasting to God were held annually or occasionally.
In 1789, President George Washington established the new nation's first Thanksgiving. Twenty-eight years later, New York was the first state to officially mark an annual Thanksgiving holiday. In 1863, during the midst of the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln established Thanksgiving as a national holiday the last Thursday in November.
That practice continued until 1939 when President Franklin D. Roosevelt switched Thanksgiving to a week earlier in an effort to jumpstart retail sales for the Christmas holidays during the Great Depression. However, backlash against the change had Roosevelt signing a bill in 1941 to move the holiday back to the fourth Thursday in November, where it resides to this day.
"Thanksgiving is one of the purest holidays," says William Thrasher, a graduate professor of Bible and theology at Moody Bible Institute and author of Putting God Back in the Holidays. "Thanksgiving doesn't have the clutter that other holidays have."
The day set aside to give thanks has no presents or much in the way of decorations associated with the holiday. "We should consider Thanksgiving as the beginning of the season of celebrating God's abundance. We should treat Thanksgiving as a day of conversation and family time," says Christie.
A Thankful Heart
Lately, people have begun viewing Thanksgiving as the beginning of the Christmas holidays. Thanksgiving doesn't have to be a "negative trigger" for the approaching Christmas season, says Christie. "I like to think of it as the perfect day to change your outlook."
With a little planning and thought, we can turn Thanksgiving into an attitude check for the rest of the year. "Thanksgiving heralds a really special time of the year," says Christie. "We can use preparations for Thanksgiving as a way to identify what our priorities are and make decisions that align with our priorities."
She suggests making a list now about how you want Thanksgiving and Christmas to look and feel like. "Think about how you want your year to end," says Christie. "Thanksgiving is the start of a season full of joy and peace, so jot down some words to describe the season and write down what you're thankful for."
Here are some more ways to recapture the true meaning of Thanksgiving.
Focus on praise. Giving God praise can take the spotlight off of ourselves. "Scripture says we should praise God," says Thrasher. He recommends using Bible verses, such as those from Romans 5 and 8, and Ephesians 1, to "prime the pump" of praise.
Expect things to go right. How many times do we approach Thanksgiving and Christmas thinking about all the things that could go wrong? Reorienting our thinking can make the season less stressful and more meaningful. "I'm a big believer in getting rid of Murphy's Law that says â anything that can go wrong, will go wrong,'" says Christie. "How many of us focus on that instead of teaching our families to focus on anything that can go right, will go right?"
Write thank-you notes. Use November to write letters of thanks to those who have done something for you that you appreciated. Even children can find this activity rewarding, and you may be pleasantly surprised at what they are thankful for.
Have a prayer of thanksgiving before meals. Asking God to bless our food and families might seem like a no-brainer, but can be one of the things lost in our busy days. "That's very simple, but in our rushed lives, it's very easy to overlook," says Christie.
Hold off on Christmas decorations. Don't put up Christmas decorations until after Thanksgiving. "Doing Christmas decorating earlier doesn't allow you time to savor Thanksgiving," says Christie.
Count your blessings. Even if things are less-than-ideal now, most of us have thingsâ ”both big and smallâ ”for which we can give thanks. "Two years ago on the day before Thanksgiving, my daughter was in an accident that nearly took her life," says Cherilyn Fienen of Independence, Kan. "So the following year, I made a very big deal about Thanksgiving to celebrate the anniversary and to give thanks for her life."
Give of yourself. Whether it's helping out a neighbor or fellow church member in need or volunteering at a soup kitchen, serving others "makes our time more fulfilling and meaningful," says Christie. Even if you can't give monetarily, giving of your time can be a blessing to others during the holiday season.
Putting Thanksgiving in its proper place can help us to enter the Christmas season with a more joyful and relaxed attitude. "Thanksgiving is something we have to embrace ourselves," says Fienen. "We have to make it as big and special as Christmas with our own Thanksgiving traditions and fun."
"Even on our worst days, most of us have been given more than many people in the world," reminds Christie. "I think Thanksgiving is an important day because it allows us to say â thank you' to God for all we have been given."
Sarah Hamaker is a freelance writer and editor, and author of Hired @ Home: The Christian Mother's Guide to Working From Home. She lives in Fairfax, Va., with her husband and four children, and is looking forward to savoring Thanksgiving with her family. Visit her at www.sarahhamaker.com.
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