The problem with Thanksgiving is that sometimes it is very hard to be thankful. There is an old hymn that begins “count your many blessings, name them one by one.” It is a song that comes to mind every year around this time as I start contemplating the upcoming feast, the time when we, as a nation, sit down and give thanks. Of all the holidays on the calendar, it is the one which is least commercialized. Its meaning and purpose have not been obscured by egg-hiding bunnies or rotund men in red suits who spend inordinate amounts of time with reindeer. There is no gift-giving, no expectation of cards, not much in the way of special decorations. Instead, it remains focused on its purpose: a time for people, for families, for individuals, to gather and give thanks around a meal that usually consists of turkey.
The holiday as such, is a North American one, as are the traditional foods consumed during it. In Canada, Thanksgiving is celebrated on the second Monday in November. In the United States, it is celebrated on the fourth Thursday of November. Thanksgiving in the United States is traced to 1621, when, according to tradition, the Pilgrims celebrated a time of thanksgiving in Plymouth, Massachusetts following a good harvest thanks to some help from the Native Americans in the area.
From then until the Civil War, a day of thanksgiving was celebrated at different times and places across the United States until 1863. That was the year that Abraham Lincoln issued a presidential proclamation that the last Thursday of November should be set aside as a day of giving thanks. Of course, given that the southern states were in rebellion, they ignored Lincoln’s proclamation and the southern states would not join the nationwide Thanksgiving celebration until Reconstruction had ended in the 1870s.
On December 26, 1941—less than twenty days after the attack on Pearl Harbor—Franklin Roosevelt signed a joint resolution of Congress that changed the national Thanksgiving date from the last Thursday to the fourth Thursday of November. It was hoped that an earlier celebration of the holiday might give the nation an economic boost by allowing more time for Christmas shopping.
For those who have experienced some loss over the previous year, for those who are undergoing crisis, whether sickness, economic or legal; for those soldiers who are battling on foreign soil, for those police and firefighters who work on that day to keep us safe, for those in retail who find themselves selling rather than buying, for those who are suffering separation from loved ones, and for those who are alone, it can be difficult to find reasons for giving thanks on the fourth Thursday of November.
That old hymn about counting blessings, however, was written not for those who are celebrating a windfall, a promotion, a new birth, a new marriage, or any of the manifold experiences that make thankfulness easy. The counting of blessings is like a root canal: the last thing we want to do.
When times are dark, we may relish the gloom. Dumbledore, the headmaster of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry in the Harry Potter once commented, “Happiness can be found in the darkest of times, if one only remembers to turn on the light.” It is another way of thinking about the subject that the old hymn enjoins us.
But it is like pulling teeth to put into practice. In the 77th Psalm, the psalmist Asaph wrote that he cried out to God for help during a time of distress—and got nothing. No comfort came. He contemplated the silence of an unanswered prayer for deliverance, the misery that wouldn’t lift. He stumbled about, trying to figure out what to do when God was absent, when God wouldn’t answer, when there seemed no reason for hope, when there was nothing to be thankful for.
In the end, he settled on a glimmer: remembering how God had delivered in the past, how he had rescued others, how he had saved the nation from impossible suffering. That was the light he switched on, allowing him to peer past the gloom. He realized that sometimes deliverance is not a triumphant march through the Red Sea behind Moses; sometimes it is simply a crawl through the valley of death until we reach the other side.
There are always things to be thankful for, if we can only think to open our eyes and see what we usually overlook: modern medical science, hot and cold running water, a free society, a civilization where food is so abundant that obesity is the main health problem of the poor, rather than starvation; a smile, a hug, a kind word, a cup of water when we thirst, a moment of rest, a full night’s sleep.
If we suffer loss, we can be thankful we ever had something to lose. As Job said, “The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away; blessed be the name of the Lord.”