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Cultivating Gratefulness on Thanksgiving

Every night when I tuck my children into bed, I read them a story, pray with them, and kiss them goodnight. One night, I kissed my eight-year-old daughter on her forehead as she shared a notable thought. “Mommy, you and Dad don’t need to buy me any gifts, you already give me a precious gift every day.”

“We do?” I asked. “What gift do we give you every day?”

She replied, “Being my mom and dad.”

Hearing my daughter give thanks for something so simple warmed my heart. I wondered, is this how God feels each time we give him thanks?

Thinking about the simple yet important expression of thanks stimulates deep appreciation for Thanksgiving Day. Centered around common people, Thanksgiving Day is quite unique. It does not mark a victory nor commemorate a national hero. Rather, it generates a nationwide reminder for thankfulness. I can’t even begin to imagine the depth of glory and rejoicing that echoes throughout Heaven when great amounts of thankfulness are expressed.

As a homeschool mom, I love teaching my children about the history of Thanksgiving and the positive role it plays throughout the United States. In order to properly educate my children about this holiday, I must fully understand the depth behind it myself. Equipped with a historic book and a Bible, I began my research.

First, I studied the documented historical memoirs of the Pilgrims detailed by William Bradford in the book Of Plymouth Plantation. Since William Bradford served as the head of the Plymouth government for several decades and helped draft the Mayflower Compact, his first-hand account paints a vivid picture of the Pilgrim’s trials and triumphs. Their story outlines faith, determination, love among neighbors, friendship, undefeated courage, a fight for civil rights, and freedom of religious thought and practice. What is most notable though is their thankfulness to God despite every hardship.

The English Separatists’ voluntary exile to the Netherlands was a temporary reprieve from religious imprisonment, loss of personal freedom and property, and risk of deathly persecution. After twelve years they felt concerned for their safety and freedom yet again. These Separatists (later known to history as Pilgrims) decided to emigrate to North America. On July 22, 1620, they boarded the Speedwell with the intent to sail toward Southampton, England where they would meet up with the Mayflower and sail to their final destination in North America. Since the Speedwell was leaking when they reached the harbor in Southampton, they spent the next week patching it. Their first attempt to sail the long track across the Atlantic began on August 5. However, on August 12, the Mayflower and Speedwell took a detour to Dartmouth, England for a second repair to the Speedwell. On August 21st, they set sail again, but 300 miles from shore they turned toward Plymouth, England with the need to fix the leaky Speedwell once more. When they reached the port this time, they decided to leave the Speedwell behind. Passengers and cargo from the Speedwell were transferred to the Mayflower and on September 6, 1620 they departed for America one final time.

Although the first part of the Pilgrim’s sixty-six days of travel on the Mayflower was fairly uneventful, the second half became treacherous. During parts of their voyage, they faced Atlantic storms and drifted, unable to safely use their sails. While weathering the storms, they lost supplies, sorted through infested food, and many passengers became ill. On the morning of November 9, 1620 the Pilgrims spotted Cape Cod but decided to head south to their preplanned destination near the Hudson River in North Virginia. After encountering rough seas and winter conditions, they decided to head back and anchor near present day Provincetown.

They thanked God for safely reaching land and on November 21, 1620, forty-one male passengers signed a historic document that would establish self-government in the New World: the Mayflower Compact. This document would have a significant impact on future documents such as the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States of America.

On Dec. 25, 1620, after much exploration of Cape Cod, the Pilgrims decided to settle in present day Plymouth. They lived on the ship while striving to build homes. The following months subsided to desperate days where food was scarce. That first harsh winter brought death to half of the original settlers, but the settlers gained hope as the nearby Native American Wampanoag tribe brought them food. That first winter was beyond difficult, yet the surviving Pilgrims thanked God.

When spring came, the Mayflower sailed home to England, but every Pilgrim who survived the winter chose to remain in the new land. With the help of the Wampanoag tribe and their willingness to supply seeds and share knowledge about growing native food, the remaining Pilgrims planted and tended crops. Thankful for the kindness of the Wampanoag tribe, the Pilgrims invited them to a traditional celebration at the time of their fall harvest. They again thanked God.

So that they would never forget their reasons for being thankful, the Pilgrims placed grains of corn on their tables at consecutive annual feasts. The corn was a reminder of their sixty-six-day trip on the Mayflower, the remaining healthy colonists that cared for the sick, and their loved ones buried on a cold windswept hill. Those grains were also a reminder of God’s grace in sending caring members of the Native American Wampanoag tribe to help them survive that first harsh winter. Most importantly, it was a reminder that God was always present; giving them strength through tough times.

Why is it important to be thankful to God under all circumstances? If we are persistently thankful, we become more humble, selfless, and content. Furthermore, instead of feeling as if we are alone, needing to tackle everything by ourselves, we feel God’s love and care. We also begin to appreciate the simplest everyday blessings and even each moment we are allowed to experience living on this earth.

Does that mean that we are wrong or sinful when emotions such as grief flood in? Absolutely not! Emotions themselves are a gift. Just as physical pain signals us to seek medical help, fear signals the need to make life saving choices. So how does thankfulness fit in with our emotions? Even when life is unpleasant, we can trust that God is working in us and through us (James 1:2-4). When we grieve the loss of a loved one, feel hurt, or even angry, we can still be thankful. We’re not thanking Him for the not-so-great circumstances. We are thanking Him for sustaining us, giving us the strength to endure, and for growing our faith.

We are also thanking Him for changing us into something more. When we weather each experience, we also grow more compassionate toward others as a result. Our experiences change us, opening our eyes to unique ways in which we can help others.

Helping Children Correlate the History of Thanksgiving With God's Word

After studying the history behind Thanksgiving, it was time to pray for God’s wisdom. “Lord, help me to comprehensibly intertwine your word with the history behind Thanksgiving so my children understand the impact that giving thanks will have in their lives and the lives of others.”

Each year, my desire grows to outline the depth behind Thanksgiving. One year, I “planted” correlating seeds of thankfulness on a wreath of bounty. To obtain my children’s interest and understanding, I inserted five corn shapes that I created out of construction paper. On each corn shape, I wrote a word that would correlate with the Pilgrim’s story of gratefulness and reliance on God during all their trials and triumphs.

  • The word, "food," reminded us that the Pilgrims had a hard time obtaining sustenance during their first harsh winter on American soil. We discussed how God created the earth and the seasons. Then we talked about God’s promise to Noah: “As long as the earth endures, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night will never cease.” (Genesis 8:22, NIV). We thanked God for spring, the season of growing, and the soil in which we can grow food.

  • The word, "kindness," reminded us of the Native Americans who helped the Pilgrims survive that first harsh winter. We discussed Mark 12:31 where God commands us to "love our neighbor". This was a good reminder that we should always be thankful for other’s kindness.

  • The word, "strength," reminded us of the Pilgrim’s journey through trying times where people pursued dreams amidst clear scenes of sickness, death, long voyages, scarce food, severe winters, and other sufferings. From their story, we learn that when life is almost unendurable, God can provide us with the strength to persevere. It seemed fitting to open our Bible to Ephesians 6:10-18 where it talks about the Armor of God and how we can rely on Him to help us as we pursue our dreams and persevere through our sufferings. After reviewing these verses, we shared stories about times when we relied on God for His provision of strength. We then paused to thank God for providing strength to persevere.

  • The word "freedom" reminds us that the Pilgrims laid a foundation of conscience, freedom, and religion for believers in Christ throughout the United States. It takes great courage to stand firm in faith, especially when facing opposition. In the Bible, John reminds us that we will face many trials as followers of Christ (John 16:33). This is why it is so important to thank God for our various freedoms and never take them for granted.

  • Love is a seed that grows families, friendships, and nations. The love the Pilgrims and the Indians shared as they forged friendships and cared for each other no doubt helped them through tough times. 1 Corinthians 13 reminds us that even if we speak in tongues, have the gift of prophecy, can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, can move mountains, or even give everything to the poor, we still have nothing without love. It seems fitting that the word "love" was centered on our wreath as a beautiful reminder to thank God for it.

May every Thanksgiving be a reminder of the historic account of the Pilgrims and may their story always inspire you to rely on God for strength and courage while always giving thanks for the whole journey; the highs, the lows, the blessings, the setbacks, and most of all for the opportunity to live, to love others, and to be loved.

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What a beautiful and perfect story recounting the beginning history of America’s thankfulness.

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