Thanksgiving is a holiday observed in the United States, Canada, Liberia, Grenada, and St. Lucia, but much of the rest of the world seems to only know about it through various movies or TV shows. However, Germany has a similar festival called Erntedankfest to thank God for a good harvest, and Japan has Kinrō Kansha no Hi, a day to commemorate labor and production and also for citizens to express gratitude to one another.

Most cultures and religions put importance on giving thanks to the Creator. The Native Americans had special thanksgiving ceremonies for the green corn harvest, for the arrival of certain fish species and whales, for the first snow, and for the arrival of their new year.

When my children were growing up, I used to don my Pilgrim outfit and they would dress as Native Americans. Then we would dramatize the story of the first Thanksgiving.

In 1620, after an extremely difficult voyage, the 102 passengers on the Mayflower arrived in Cape Cod, Massachusetts. The passengers and crew were a combination of religious separatists, indentured servants, and others. Due to a delayed departure, they arrived in winter and were dangerously low on provisions. Approximately half of the passengers and crew died in the first year from sickness and malnutrition.

The next year, thanks to help from the local Native Americans, the Wampanoags, they learned how to plant crops using fish as fertilizer and the colony achieved food security. They were so thankful they decided to hold a celebratory feast to show their gratitude to God for their survival. The Wampanoags joined in the festivities and brought five deer to the feast. In the years that followed they continued the practice, and in 1623, Governor William Bradford issued a formal proclamation for men, women, and children to gather on Thursday, November 29, to “render Thanksgiving to Almighty God for all His blessings.”

George Washington, the first American president, proclaimed the first nationwide thanksgiving celebration on November 26, 1789, as “a day of public thanksgiving and prayer to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many and signal favors of Almighty God.” These days, it’s a good opportunity to bring families together across all the divides that put strain on our society and get people of different opinions and persuasions sitting down at the same table.

Ramona Peters is the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe’s Tribal Historic Preservation Officer. She had this to say about the positive aspects of the holiday: “A heartfelt Thanksgiving is very important to me as a person. It’s important that we give thanks. For me, it’s a state of being. You want to live in a state of thanksgiving.”

About 40 years ago, I was living in Bogor, Indonesia, on a very tight budget. A traditional Thanksgiving feast with pumpkin pies and cranberry sauce certainly wasn’t on the cards, but I prayed for a special dinner. That day, our neighbor appeared and gave us his goose that had been run over by a car neatly at the neck, which turned into a sumptuous feast that we shared with others.

Someday, we will enjoy a fantastic feast called the Marriage Supper of the Lamb with Jesus and people of all races and cultures.1 A big part of the gratitude we will feel is when we realize how big His love for us is despite our mistakes and shortcomings. It is with that end in mind and the joy of the journey in getting there that I give thanks.

  1. See Revelation 19:7–10.