The Value of a Thanksgiving Tradition

Happy Thanksgiving Day

Rev. Robert Fleischmann, National Director, Christian Life Resources


Thanksgiving is a great time of year for my family. First of all, it takes place in the fall. There is something warm and inviting about the colors of fall and the beauty of the trees as their leaves change. While those of us in the north country know it is the precursor to another cold and snowy winter, it still exudes a sense of family, togetherness, and tradition.

I know not all families value Thanksgiving as mine does, and that is too bad. My parents instilled in me a strong tradition at Thanksgiving to get together and celebrate not just our material blessings, but also the blessings of family and friends. It’s a time when busy siblings pack up their families and make the trip home just to be together. It’s a time when those too far away find a moment to call home and so touch peripherally this semblance of family togetherness.

Though it is not a church holiday, nearly every church finds cause to hold a service of Thanksgiving. I am surprised, however, that we rarely hear the story of the Prodigals Son (more contemporarily known as The Parable of the Lost Son). You know the story (see Luke 15:11ff): a son wishes to get his inheritance early and then runs off to squander it on wild living.

As might be expected, he soon finds himself out of money and out of luck, longing to eat at least as well as the pigs eat. So he returns home because he knew — he knew that there he could find some reprieve — some hope — some restoration. His homecoming was cause for great celebration. The reception by his father was more than he expected and more than his brother felt he deserved. But, he knew he could come home.

I always thought this parable was a wonderful Thanksgiving sermon because it touched on some very important components for a family: 1) learning appreciation; 2) learning the value of family, and 3) finding a good investment in practicing a good tradition.

There was something about the way the Lost Son was raised that told him he could come home. There was something about home that reminded him there was love, acceptance, and a heart that would take him back, despite the sacrifice of losing his standing in the family.

Thanksgiving is a wonderful time for families to establish and sustain a family tradition. For years at our Thanksgiving table, we said a prayer of thanks to God for all that God had done for us, especially since we knew we did nothing to deserve such blessings. Each year we’d tease each other as we celebrated the special joy of being together. Weather permitting, we took a post-meal walk to recover from our over-indulgence and talked about the challenges of life and the opportunities that lie ahead.

Sometimes we returned to the house to play games or work on a project with the added help of the family members who returned home. At other times we devoted a few hours to the traditional football games or spent time visiting while one washed and the other dried the many dishes left after the meal.

In this annual ritual, we learned by our actions the value of family, the appreciation we have for the providence of God, and the idea that thanksgiving begins with the awareness that each of us is uniquely and undeservedly blessed by a God who sacrifices and forgives.

Now consider what the Thanksgiving tradition does for a family. No family is immune from the ravages of sin. Sometimes it’s a wayward son, an unwed sister’s pregnancy, a father’s act of indiscretion, or a mother’s thoughtless words that fractured the family in the course of a year. Yet, when a tradition is observed regularly, it brings even the prodigals son back, seeking refuge from his own transgressions and forgiveness.

A good friend of mine and I were once talking about our different political views, comparing and contrasting conservatism and liberalism. He wisely observed that it is in our nature to not only insist on when we are right but to also rebuke those who are wrong. I think that is true.

In our righteous indignation to condemn abortion, euthanasia, homosexual marriage, promiscuity, etc., we often erect a wall that is neither inviting nor forgiving. It allows little opportunity for the errant to return and recover from their own mistakes. It allows little chance for broken hearts to mend, disappointments to be discussed, and spiritual matters to be addressed.

No one debates the error of the prodigals son. Jesus makes it clear that this young man thought only of himself. But what is often overlooked are the traditions of his home that made him know inside that, while his family would be disappointed, he could still return. He could still ask for and would receive forgiveness.

A disciplined observance of Thanksgiving can be a tradition with an open door. It provides for pride to be swallowed, arms to be outstretched, tears to be shed, and restoration to begin.

Some advocate Thanksgiving as a time of private family observance. I disagree. Include many relatives in the event to afford greater opportunities for restoration. Make it an event that is more than just an elaborate dinner for the family. In my childhood, Thanksgiving was a time where the widowed of our church and community came to our home. For some, we became an extended support system as they wrestled with life’s many problems.

When done well and religiously adhered to, a strong tradition brings home the wandering, draws together those who are drifting, and provides a wonderful forum for mending fences. Even when distance and resources make it impossible to bring together all who had once been part of this tradition, it creates the longing which finds expression in phone calls, e-mails, and letters. Things are often communicated because of the tradition that should be communicated sooner or more often. Words like, I miss you, I love you, I wish you were here, and When can you visit? communicate that even to the erring and wandering, there is still a place for restoration.

None of this diminishes the Christian’s daily thanksgiving for the graciousness of God who provides for our worldly needs and our eternal solution in Christ. Enveloping it with a tradition of family and togetherness provides a forum for celebration and puts the heart of appreciation to work with deeds of forgiveness and restoration.

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