If you assume that Thanksgiving has been canceled this year, you might be forgiven. Wall-to-wall commercials for Black Friday began even earlier this year — some of them I heard as early as October. Let’s be clear: as a proponent of God’s moral law and, therefore, of free markets, I have no objection whatsoever to honest advertisement. I do object, however — and vehemently — to the mad rush to get to Christmas by marginalizing Thanksgiving. In past years, the calendrical proximity of Thanksgiving to Christmas was irrelevant, since Christmas advertisement began in earnest only in mid-December. In the early 80’s, as my wife Sharon and I were launching our family, we could count on the sequestered integrity of a Thanksgiving celebration on which Christmas — or even the longer Advent season — did not impinge. We celebrated Thanksgiving, and then, about a month later, we celebrated Christmas. Today, neither we nor anybody else in the United States enjoys such a calm, unimpeded luxury.
A National Christian Holiday
While Thanksgiving may not generate inky-black department-store sales, and while it is not a part of the traditional church calendar, it is a deeply Christian holiday (= holy day). President George Washington, a Christian of the formal, establishment type, proclaimed November 26 as a day of national Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving was established as a national holiday by President Abraham Lincoln, who was not by most accounts a professing Christian but who, like the ancient Persian kings Cyrus, Darius and Artaxerxes (Ezra 6–7), knew and reverenced the true God of heaven and earth. Lincoln issued his proclamation during the dark years of our nation’s Civil War, and his tone of humility amid offering thanksgiving to God is striking even today. After recounting God’s abundant national blessings even during the ravages of war, Lincoln states:
No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy. It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole American People.
Lincoln, though personally not a Christian, was deeply imbued by the Christian culture in which he was reared, and consequently weaved together the specific, irrevocable Christian themes of God’s goodness, sovereignty and mercy; the validity of his moral law; human sinfulness; the reality of God’s forgiveness for those who repent; and the imperative of thanksgiving to our God. Lincoln knew that God both blesses and judges nations to the extent that they trust him and obey him. Though his language was non-sectarian and did not specifically invoke Christianity, it is compatible only with Christian revelation and certainly not with the Deism prominent among the European and Eastern elites of the previous generations.
Our National Apostasy
This cluster of deep Christian themes has been almost entirely absent from presidential administrations of both political parties over the last few decades. Would to God that Pres. Barack Obama, or, before him, Pres. George W. Bush, had indicted our nation for its depravity and urged us to repentance and humility and gratitude before a God who has not given us the national judgment we deserve.
But to be blunt, these unmistakably Christian themes don’t sell to a self-congratulatory, narcissistic population for which the ideas of sin and judgment are not so much repugnant as foreign. For this reason, Thanksgiving has become a vague secular sideshow to the vague, secular mainshow known as Christmas. The Thanksgiving holiday as originally conceived by Lincoln stands in sharp antithesis to the vague holiday secularisms (a contradiction in terms if there ever was one) to which Americans, including many professed Christians, have become accustomed.
Thanksgiving and Renewed Christian Culture
Reviving Thanksgiving as a distinctly Christian national holiday might be a vital part of restoring Christian culture. Days of national repentance and thanksgiving were a reality during the early years of our Republic, and it is hard to imagine the present success of our nation apart from these acts of national obedience. The fact that we have turned our back on them, and on the Triune God that they presuppose, invites God’s national judgment (Ps. 9:16–17; Jer. 51:20; 1 Pet. 4:17–18).
This Thanksgiving, do not allow Black Friday and the ubiquitous Christmas commercialization to dilute and divest Thanksgiving. Join me in reinvigorating the true meaning of Thanksgiving, not merely the true meaning of Christmas. The aphorism “Jesus is the reason for the season” is no less true of Thanksgiving than for Christmas.
Thanksgiving isn’t the entrance ramp to Christmas.