It has always amazed me that we live in a nation where a holiday is given to the people for the purpose of Thanksgiving. Let’s seize the day! It is a marvelous opportunity for us to lead our families in thanksgiving, building cultures of happiness and gratitude in our families that spill over into the church and the society at large. If there ever was a truly biblical holiday in America, Thanksgiving would top the list.
What follows are fourteen Thanksgiving Celebration Tips. I write this that we “may proclaim with the voice of thanksgiving,” and to tell of His “wondrous works.” (Psalm 26:7), and to declare the praises of our Lord Jesus Christ across the land. In it, you will find encouragement to read the scripture, sing the songs, recount the history and dedicate your family to building a culture of thankfulness.
1. Do what a fun family in our church does…
We have a family in our church that has a large and fantastic Thanksgiving celebration that engages all ages in the Pilgrim story. It is educational and engaging for all. Anyone who comes must be dressed as a character of someone on the Mayflower, and ready to tell the story of their lives, reciting a speech to all – from the littlest to the oldest.
2. Read Psalm 136
A couple of years ago, our family read Psalm 136 and each person gave a personal testimony of thanksgiving between each verse. Ezra 3:11 gives the basic idea for this, “And they sang responsively, praising and giving thanks to the Lord: "For He is good, For His mercy endures forever toward Israel." Then all the people shouted with a great shout when they praised the Lord because the foundation of the house of the Lord was laid.”
3. Capture the opportunity to teach the sufficiency of Christ
Thanksgiving offers fathers a wonderful opportunity to intentionally use an entire day to teach your family and friends about the importance of giving thanks. Families need leaders who will establish and undergird and constantly reinforce a culture of joy in a family. Thanksgiving offers a brilliant opportunity for leaders to lead their tribes in thanksgiving and drive a stake in the ground to say, “thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 15:57), and to declare, “Now thanks be to God who always leads us in triumph in Christ, and through us diffuses the fragrance of His knowledge in every place” (2 Cor 2:14).
4. Play some Pilgrim games
It’s always nice to go outside and have some fun after such a fantastic meal. Over the years, we have played various pilgrim games. Here are some supposedly authentic pilgrim games. Following are two games that I think the pilgrims might have played that our family has played.
The Spoon and Apple Race
Mark a start and finish line and move the apple along with a spoon.
Make a circle about 5 feet across out of a rope, and give the kids pumpkins around the circle at an equal distance from it. The first one who rolls the pumpkin into the circle is the winner.
5. Exercise your guns
This is a distinctive pilgrim game. There is didactic evidence that the pilgrims got out their guns and went shooting… Here’s the reason we are confident this is a pilgrim game: Edward Winslow wrote,
“amongst other recreations, we exercised our arms, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and amongst the rest their greatest king, Massasoit, with some 90 men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted.”
6. Have a hayride to end all hayrides
For the past several years, we have had a Hay Ride on Thanksgiving. One year we pulled a low farm trailer with hay bales to sit on and we drove around re-enacting the voyage of the Mayflower, including people getting washed overboard as did John Howland during a gale about halfway in the journey… How was John Howland saved?
“In sundrie of these storms the winds were so fierce and ye seas so high as they could not baree a knote of saile, but were forced to hull for diverce days together. And in one of them, as thus lay at hull in a mighty storm, a lustive yonge man, called John Howland, coming upon some occasion above ye grattings, was, with a seale of ye shippe, throwne into ye sea; but it pleased God that he caught hold of ye tope-saile hallards which hunge overboard and rane out at length; yet he held his hould (though he was sundrie fadomes under water) till he was hould up by ye same rope to be brime of ye water, and then with a boat-hooke & other means got into ye shippe again and his life was saved; and though he was something ill with it, yet he lived many years after and became a profitable member both in church and commonwealth.” (From Bradford’s, Of Plymouth Plantation)
7. Read the First Thanksgiving Proclamation of 1777
Read the rich and biblical language in the First Thanksgiving Proclamation, delivered in 1777 by the Continental Congress. The authors spoke beautifully of the elements of true Christianity. Here is a shortened version. They spoke of the,
“Duty of all Men to adore the superintending Providence of Almighty God; to acknowledge with Gratitude their Obligation to him for Benefits received, and to implore such farther Blessings as they stand in Need of: And it having pleased him in his abundant Mercy, not only to continue to us the innumerable Bounties of his common Providence… (to) express the grateful Feelings of their Hearts, and consecrate themselves to the Service of their Divine Benefactor… (to enter into) Confession of their manifold Sins, whereby they had forfeited every Favor… (to offer) Supplication that it may please GOD through the Merits of JESUS CHRIST, mercifully to forgive and blot them out of Remembrance…”
8. Read George Washington’s proclamation, Oct 3, 1789
This is a very eloquent and moving call to the nation to repentance, gratitude, prayer and to obedience to God. In the following excerpt, Washington appeals to,
“all Nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey his will, to be grateful for his benefits, and humbly to implore his protection and favor and also that we may then unite in most humbly offering our prayers and supplications to the great Lord and Ruler of Nations and beseech him to pardon our national and other transgressions…To promote the knowledge and practice of true religion and virtue…”
Here you can read the Full Text of George Washington’s proclamation from the Library of Congress website.
There are many Thanksgiving proclamations on record. Here are various Thanksgiving proclamations, from the website of Pilgrim Hall, in Plymouth, Mass.
9. Read Edward Winslow’s description of the first Thanksgiving
Here is his description of the first Thanksgiving in 1621, in modern language,
"…our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after a special manner rejoice together, after we had gathered the fruits of our labors; they four in one day killed as much fowl, as with a little help beside, served the Company almost a week, at which time amongst other Recreations, we exercised our Arms, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and amongst the rest their greatest king Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five Deer, which they brought to the Plantation and bestowed on our Governor, and upon the Captain and others. And although it be not always so plentiful, as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so far from want, that we often wish you partakers of our plenty."
10. Explain the value of giving thanks from the Bible
Here are five ways:
First, do a word search on “Thanksgiving”
Get out your computer or concordance and look for “Thanksgiving,” “thankful,” and “thanks” in the Bible and find a few favorites to read.
Second, explain how in thanksgiving God calls us out of our sorrows
God is kind to lift His children out of despair by calling them to lift their voices in thanksgiving. He takes us beyond where we are. He takes us higher than we were. See how greatly the Father has loved us… He has done so much to lift us out of the despair that comes so naturally. He does this by calling us to give thanks.
Third, explain the value of acknowledging the goodness of God
One of the blessings of God for His people is that He not only calls us to acknowledge the evil but to praise the good. God is a God of contrasts. He never leaves His people in the pit of despair. This is why we have so much to be thankful for. For His sovereignty over all things; for His provision for us; for the people, He has put in our lives; for our churches; for a day of thanksgiving.
Fourth, explain the importance of praising God for victories
We can rejoice in His power of His Hand in the victories He has accomplished for us. This is one of the great uses of feasting in the Bible. For example, the first example of feasting in the Bible occurs when Melchizedek brings bread and wine to Abraham after his victory over five kings, “Then Melchizedek king of Salem brought out bread and wine; he was the priest of God Most High. And he blessed him and said: "Blessed be Abram of God Most High, Possessor of heaven and earth; And blessed be God Most High, Who has delivered your enemies into your hand." And he gave him a tithe of all.” Genesis 14:18-20
Fifth, express gratitude for deliverance
The second example in scripture of feasting arose out of the victory of deliverance from Egyptian captivity where God commanded two annual holidays for feasting and thanksgiving. These feasts were, Shavuot or the Feast of Pentecost and Sukkoth, the Feast of Tabernacles which was a celebration of the Ten Commandments.
Sixth, explain that through Thanksgiving we endure the hard years
You may be thinking, ‘It’s been a hard year, and it is difficult to rejoice.” Remember the first Thanksgiving of the pilgrims in Plymouth. They were giving thanks, even though only seven women were left alive after the first winter in America. Yet, out of these seven women came the blessed rise of a “city built on a hill,” a light to the nations.
11. Read selections from “Of Plymouth Plantation” by William Bradford
Especially consider reading Chapter 4, “Reasons which led the congregation at Leyden to decide upon a settlement in America.”
12. Sing hymns the pilgrims sang
The pilgrims were lovers of music and singing. They sang the songs of the Ainsworth Psalter. Click the previous link and listen to Priscilla Mullins sing one of them. One of the more popular pilgrim songs is, “We Gather Together.” You can listen to it here. It originated during the time of the Dutch persecution in Holland. It is thought that Dutch Calvinists brought the song to America in the 1620’s. This song was sung at the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953.
We gather together to ask the Lord’s blessing;
He chastens and hastens His will to make known.
The wicked oppressing now cease from distressing.
Sing praises to His Name; He forgets not His own.
Beside us to guide us, our God with us joining,
Ordaining, maintaining His kingdom divine;
So from the beginning the fight we were winning;
Thou, Lord, were at our side, all glory be Thine!
We all do extol Thee, Thou Leader in battle,
And pray that Thou still our Defender will be.
Let Thy congregation escape tribulation;
Thy Name be ever praised! O Lord, make us free!
The Old One Hundredth
There are various versions of this song. The lyrics below are from The Book of Psalms: Englished both in Prose and Meter (Amsterdam 1612) by Henry Ainsworth, carried to New England on the Mayflower.
Leader: Shout to Jehovah all the earth (Congregation Repeats)
Leader: Serve ye Jehovah with gladness (Congregation Repeats)
Leader: Enter His gates with singing mirth (Congregation Repeats)
Leader: Know that Jehovah He God is (Congregation Repeats)
It's he that made us, and not we;
his folk, and sheep of his feeding.
O with confession enter ye
his gates, his courtyards with praising:
Confess to him, bless ye his name.
Because Jehovah he good is:
his mercy ever is the same
and his faith, unto all ages.
Following are some other lyrics that are sung to this tune:
All people that on earth do dwell
Sing to the Lord with cheerful voice.
Him serve with fear, His praise forth tell
Come ye before Him and rejoice
You faithful servants of the Lord
Sing out His praise with one accord
While serving Him with all your might
And keeping vigil through the night
Praise God, from Whom all blessings flow;
Praise Him, all creatures here below;
Praise Him above, ye heavenly host;
Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.
Here are the words from the Genevan Psalter based on Psalm 134
You faithful servants of the Lord,
sing out his praise with one accord,
while serving him with all your might
and keeping vigil through the night.
Unto his house lift up your hand
and to the Lord your praises send.
May God who made the earth and sky
bestow his blessings from on high.
13. Tell the story of the pilgrims
My friend Stephen Hopkins, NCFIC Regional Facilitator in the Southwest, and pastor at Burnet Bible Church has written the following to tell his children the story. It is taken mostly from selections of William Bradford’s “Of Plymouth Plantation.” It takes him almost an hour to get through it, so he breaks it up into two sections. Here is the full text of his notes.
14. Use the day as preparation for heaven, where you will be giving thanks for all eternity.
Tell your family that this holiday for thanksgiving is a foretaste of heaven. Why? The Lord instructed us in several places that we ought to give thanks in everything (Eph. 5:18; Col 3:17; 1 Thess. 5:16-18). It is also the disposition of the godly, (Rom. 7:25; 1 Cor. 15:57; Rom. 6:17; 2 Cor. 2:14). Why? Because this is the activity of heaven… We give thanks, today as a foretaste of that day when we will be filled with everlasting thankfulness… This will be one of the dominant emotions in heaven. It begins at the Lord’s Supper, and is continued at the marriage supper of the lamb which inaugurates times of everlasting joy. The day is coming when we will have everlasting joy on our heads. See Isaiah 51:11, “So the ransomed of the Lord shall return, And come to Zion with singing, With everlasting joy on their heads. They shall obtain joy and gladness; Sorrow and sighing shall flee away.”