The national observance of an annual period of thanksgiving to God is far older than most people realize. In fact, the spiritual foundations of the holiday were woven into the fabric of ancient Israel more than 3,000 years ago! Israelites, after leaving Egypt, were commanded to set aside special days of thanksgiving to remember the mercies and love of God. These annual periods of rejoicing and reflection are collectively known as the Feast (Holy) Days (Exodus 23:14 - 17, Deuteronomy 16, Leviticus 23).
The spring Festival season (Passover and the Days of Unleavened Bread) annually offered thanksgiving for the year's first harvest. One of the special ceremonies conducted during this period was the waving of the firstfruits of the harvest, before the Eternal, in gratitude for what he made possible (Leviticus 23:10 - 11). Pentecost marked the end of the spring harvest and another time of thanksgiving. The fall Feast of Tabernacles was a time of great joy before the Lord for providing the land's biggest harvest. One Biblical commentary summed up these periods with, "Put simply, Israel celebrated thanksgiving three times a year . . ." (New Commentary on the Whole Bible).
The Feast Days were not, however, the only means through which thanksgiving could be offered to the Eternal. Israel's sacrificial system made available the recognition, at any time, of God's blessings through the thank offering (a type of peace offering). This offering expressed a person's gratitude for being favored by the Eternal. After it was given, not only were the priests allowed to eat part of the sacrifice but also the person who gave it (Leviticus 7:15 - 18, 28 - 34). This unique arrangement made possible a type of thanksgiving meal, where everyone involved shared in the food.
In America, it is commonly accepted that the first gathering arranged for thanking God for a bountiful harvest goes back at least to 1621 A.D. In this year, settlers residing in the Plymouth colony (in modern day Massachusetts) initiated a three-day celebration to thank the Eternal for their first harvest in the New World. All fifty-three surviving Pilgrims (out of 100 that landed in 1620) and ninety Native Americans took part in the event.
In October 1789, during his first year of office, President George Washington issued a special proclamation. It declared "a day of public thanksgiving and prayer to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many signal favors of Almighty God . . ." His proclamation declared it was the duty of ALL people to remember the Eternal's active role in their lives and to thank the "great Lord and Ruler of Nations."
In October 1863, President Abraham Lincoln officially established a national holiday to thank God for his countless blessings. His Thanksgiving proclamation set aside a day in November to offer, "praise to our beneficent Father." America needed a special time each year to remember the true originator of its wealth because "these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come."
The Thanksgiving holiday is based on a few simple truths. These are that God exists, he is actively involved in what happens on earth, and that it is he, and no one else, who can fulfill all our needs. Thanking him, therefore, on a regular basis not only makes sense but also is the right thing to do. Unfortunately, America as a whole has chosen to forget her Maker and the originator of all her blessings. Unless we repent of this sin and our self-centered ways, we risk being forgotten by him.