Gobbling Up Tradition

The Thanksgiving greeting was e-mailed from the secretary of the army to thousands of soldiers—and it purported to get to the real meaning of Thanksgiving: "From its Pilgrim heritage, Thanksgiving has come to signify the American spirit—a spirit of . . . self-reliance . . . that has helped to nurture freedom and prosperity." If that definition sounds unfamiliar, consider an even stranger one that appeared in Washington Parent magazine. Thanksgiving, the author writes, is a day for celebrating tolerance, for appreciation of nature, and for cooking "a really fantastic meal"—including turkey-shaped crudités. Prosperity? Tolerance? Turkey-shaped crudités? Sounds like somebody needs to stuff a history lesson down these writers' gullets. If these folks really want to understand the meaning of Thanksgiving, they can start by opening up the Wall Street Journal. Every Thanksgiving, the Journal runs a quotation that gets to the heart of this holiday: It's from William Bradford's account of Pilgrim life called Of Plymouth Plantation. Bradford wrote: "They knew that they were pilgrims and strangers here below, and looked not much on these things, but lifted their eyes up to Heaven, their dearest country, where God hath prepared for them a city." Unlike modern American Christians, the Pilgrims had everything going against them from an earthly standpoint. Compared to Puritans, the Pilgrims were less educated, had fewer financial resources, and tended to fall on the lower rungs of the social ladder. Landing at Plymouth in the winter of 1620, the Pilgrims endured hunger and privation; half of them died. Who would have thought their struggling colony would ever survive? Yet against all odds, the Pilgrims had one thing that really mattered: an unswerving conviction that their real home and citizenship were in heaven, where, as the Book of Hebrews puts it, God has prepared for them a city with foundations. That was their focus, their hope, their motivation. When the Pilgrims gathered with the Indians after that first harvest of 1621, they were not simply expressing gratitude to God for material blessings. No, by lifting "up their eyes to Heaven," the Pilgrims were reaffirming a worldview that acknowledged the transient nature of life. They were confirming their status as pilgrims in a strange land. Americans today enjoy unprecedented prosperity and freedom—and lifting up our eyes to heaven in Pilgrim fashion is not all that easy. The comforts of this world make it difficult to see ourselves as pilgrims in a strange land. How can we recapture the Pilgrim spirit of Thanksgiving in an age that has all but gobbled up the true meaning of the day—an age that tells us to thank everyone from Mother Nature to ourselves? Going to church and offering grace before we carve the turkey are good starts. But we also need to ask God to change our hearts so that our affection for things above enables us to accept both the blessings and disappointments below—because we know they are only temporary. To recapture the original purpose of Thanksgiving, you and I must focus on the heavenly city, which is our real home. What William Bradford called our "dearest country."


Chuck Colson


  • Facebook Icon in Gold
  • Twitter Icon in Gold
  • LinkedIn Icon in Gold

Sign up for the Daily Commentary