If you’re like me (or Hobby Lobby), your Christmas tree goes up before the turkey is served on Thanksgiving Day.
I know, I know. So many of you are shaking your heads already.
People have big opinions on when trees, music, lights, and even coffee cups should appear for the Christmas season.
And while this topic is debated mostly in good fun, it serves as a small sample of the polarized and divided cultural climate we all seem to find ourselves in these days.
But, even though I’m on the Christmas-as-soon-as-you-want side of this debate, I’m willing to find the middle ground here and admit that Thanksgiving does not get the focus and attention it should.
Really, it’s fitting that Thanksgiving comes before Christmas — not because we need another way to decorate with pumpkins, but because the entire Christian life should be marked by giving thanks. Even, and sometimes especially, in the times before we enjoy the blessings of God’s gifts, times when we are tired and unsure, and times that are hard.
In fact, the history of the Thanksgiving holiday in our nation is instructive for how disciples of Jesus can rightly approach giving thanks to God.
The holiday of Thanksgiving has been celebrated on and off in the United States since 1789. President Abraham Lincoln made it an official national holiday in 1863, proclaiming it, “a day of thanksgiving and praise to our beneficent Father.”
If you don’t remember from history class, Lincoln was the president of the United States from 1861 to 1865 — the same years as the Civil War. In this war, 618,222 men died, which is far and away the most casualties in our nation’s history. It was undoubtedly one of the most challenging and divisive periods America has ever experienced.
And yet, in the middle of this time — before the end of the war — Lincoln asked the nation to give thanks to our good Father in heaven.
And long before Lincoln, there was the Apostle Paul.
Paul suffered for his faith in Jesus. He was beaten, persecuted, imprisoned, and eventually martyred. And yet, these are Paul’s words written to the people of the church:
Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.
— 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18
Throughout the gospels, we see Jesus giving thanks to his Father.
He gives thanks for the bread God provides before he distributes to the hungry crowd. He gives thanks to God before the resurrection of Lazarus. He gives thanks to his Father before he breaks the bread and pours the wine that represents his broken body and his blood, fully knowing what these symbols will mean for him the next day.
He demonstrates thanksgiving for good gifts and thanksgiving in suffering.
The Greek root of Eucharist (the fancy word for “The Lord’s Supper”) can actually be translated as “thanksgiving.”
When we take the Lord’s Supper together, we are remembering God’s good gift of his son, who died for our sins and was resurrected as our king. We remember the past and give thanks. We also give thanks for the present gifts and blessings God has given us, from our daily bread to his presence among us.
So we can give thanks for the Advent of Christ — the Christmas season — resting in the truth that God can be trusted. We can give thanks, knowing full well that we, like Lincoln, like Paul, and like Christ, will experience discord and suffering in this life, but that God can be trusted through it all. And we can give thanks for the coming Advent: the return of Jesus when all things are made new.
So, this holiday season, whether we are struggling or celebrating, whether we have lots or little, whether we prefer pumpkins or trees, let’s give thanks together.
Let us be thankful for God who gifted us with his only beloved Son.
Let us be thankful for the good gifts we enjoy now.
Let us be thankful for the promise of gifts to come.
Thanksgiving before Christmas. Thanksgiving for Christmas. Thanksgiving always.