Memorial Day and Thanksgiving can’t get much farther from each other on the calendar. On Memorial Day, we see flags and flowers, and on Thanksgiving, we get turkeys and family-filled dinner tables. But the two holidays are actually connected in a few important ways.
Even though Thanksgiving began as a peaceful celebration of the Pilgrims’ first harvest in Plymouth, the holiday officially began in the middle of the Civil War when Abraham Lincoln established Thanksgiving as a national holiday. He made the proclamation just three months after the Battle of Gettysburg, the bloodiest battle in American history. The purpose of the holiday was to ask God to heal the nation and comfort those suffering because of the war.
The tradition of laying flowers and offering prayers for fallen soldiers also began around the time of the Civil War. So many men had died during the conflict that communities took it upon themselves to remember and pay respect to those who had perished. Memorial Day is all about gratefulness for those who have died in military service and remembering the wars that have taken so many American lives. The spirit of both holidays is about thankfulness and remembrance in the face of great suffering and conflict.
Memorial Day is often just a time to barbeque, go to the beach, and begin the summer season. There are always a few of us still struggling to recall the difference between Memorial Day and Veterans’ Day. Just like most holidays with religious origins, Thanksgiving has slowly become commercialized, being swallowed more each year by Black Friday shopping.
As time goes by, it’s all too easy to forget the legacy of the U. S., like the first struggles that early settlers endured in the New World. Harsh winters and disease killed many men, women, and children from the Mayflower and other Pilgrim voyages. Also, we’re often quick to forget the many transgressions committed by colonists against different indigenous peoples, overlooking the peoples that have gone before us. The passing of time can take away so much of the power of trials, but that’s why we have holidays.
There’s a good precedent from biblical festivals for remembrance and gratitude. God established the Passover for Israel to commemorate His miraculous salvation of the slaves in Egypt. Moses had to continually remind the Israelites about God’s blessing and faithfulness while Israel was wandering in the wilderness after crossing the Red Sea. The weekly Sabbath day is a reminder of God’s creative work in Genesis. And of course, we celebrate communion by eating and drinking, as Jesus says, “in remembrance of me.”
Heroes of the faith have gone before us. They’ve wrestled with God, been vessels for His power, and finished the race of faith. Biblical holidays are about remembrance of incredible events, and they’re also about celebrating a shared story: God’s story with us. These stories are what bring us together as a faith-centered community. God’s story binds His people together.
American holidays aren’t the same as Christian holidays. Memorial Day isn’t trying to say that our fallen servicemen and women died fighting God’s wars or for God’s country. Memorial Day ties us into a story that’s bigger than ourselves. It reminds us to take seriously and genuinely appreciate what other people have done to secure peace. Thanksgiving also reminds us of the American story and heritage that we share.
Even Memorial Day and Thanksgiving, secular holidays, can still cultivate the same spirit of gratitude and remembrance that are essentially the spirit that God wants to bring about in our hearts. Thankfulness is thankfulness. Remembrance fosters a heart that reflects upon sacrifice and blessing. God cares about these things because He is the ultimate giver and source of blessing. We need Him to remind us of this over and over again.
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