As a food blogger, I appreciate Thanksgiving as a beautiful day to enjoy food. Succulent meats, sweet desserts, rich mashed potatoes, and savory green beans are a feast that can be enjoyed by all ages and generations (and of course, there are many vegetarian options, or gluten- or dairy-free options for those who want them). Our “ideal,” picture-perfect Thanksgiving shows a table burdened with food in a nicely decorated room, with a joyous family gathered around. It is a happy picture.

Yet this beautiful feast’s history is steeped in dark times.

The iconic picture of the first Thanksgiving feast is the Plymouth pilgrims sharing a meal with the Wampanoag Indians. In that time, calling for a “feast of Thanksgiving” was common among the Puritan people when they recognized a good gift from “the Lord.” Yet, this feast happened after half of their party had succumbed to starvation and disease. Today, we can look back at that party of Pilgrims, who were fleeing from persecution, and see some of the seeds being laid for persecution of another party — the native Indian groups. However, in a lovely picture of unity and thankfulness, they shared food and drink together at this moment in history.

Life was not easy for them. Death had been all too present, but a harvest (thanks to local tutoring they received) gave them hope for the future. And so they feasted — and gave thanks.

Skip ahead to 1863, and the United States of America is not so united, but waging a bloody conflict. Family members were fighting on opposite sides of the conflict; primitive doctoring methods probably killed more people then they saved; and there was hardly a family that didn't experience deep loss and sorrow because of the war. It was hard to see the light of hope during these dark years.

It was in these deeply dark days that President Abraham Lincoln made the Thanksgiving Proclamation. In it, the president pointed out what they did have to be thankful for (peace with other countries during a time of turmoil within, a harvest uninterrupted by the war, and abundance from mines). He also called for repentance for personal sins, as well as prayers for those widowed and orphaned. This is where our national holiday began; it started in some of the darkest days of our country’s history.

The next time a president made a change to Thanksgiving (ironically to appease retailers who wanted more time to sell Christmas gifts) was after the Great Depression. Unemployment, hunger, despair and dusty farmlands pervaded our country. It seems our Thanksgiving feast gets a higher profile when it falls at the tail end of some catastrophe.

But the point is this; many of us are facing hard times. Unemployment is high in our country right now, countless have lost homes or are displaced because of Hurricane Sandy. Many have lost jobs or are working jobs that hardly pay enough to keep food on the table. To take a day to feast (all that money going to food!), to take a day to cook extra food (think of the work!), can seem like the last thing we would want to do. Yet, it is in dark days that our souls probably need a day to sit back and count the things we do have to be thankful for. When we are most discouraged, we need the most encouragement. Too often our sorrows overshadow our blessings. For that reason, I am gong to try to keep my contributions to the meal simple enough that we have time to really talk and enjoy the day together — and not simply work the whole day preparing for it!

There will always be death, sickness, lack of money, sorrow, worry and pain while we are on this world. Some of us are living through especially difficult circumstances. But let this upcoming day not be a day of trouble and inconveniences, but rather a day to count our blessings, as few or as many as they may be. In doing so, we follow the example of those before us who also chose to give thanks during very difficult times.

Perhaps your meal will be simple, but you will be sharing it with those you love. I think of the Hebrew proverb “Better is a dinner of herbs where love is, then a stalled oxen and hatred.” Perhaps you will be working on that day, away from those you love, but your work helps keep your loved ones financially afloat during lean times. Perhaps you will be spending this holiday alone in the quietness of home (both a home and quietness can be a blessing — or so says this mother of two loud little children!).

I think that thankfulness during hard times is important because it helps give hope for the future. When you can find nothing to be thankful for, then what is there to live for?

On a personal note: This Thanksgiving, we will be thankful for our loved ones, both those who we have now, and for the time we had with those before we lost them. Thankful for food on our tables, and the roof over our head. For giggles and sweet stories between two little girls in between their petty arguments. There are many circumstances that are painful or imperfect ,and we expect more of them in the years to come, but we are thankful that our hope is not in this imperfect world because of our hope through Jesus, and we thank a kind God for the good gifts he has given us.

I’d love to hear from you! What are you thankful for this year? I’d also love to hear ideas about how to bring thankfulness into this important day. Any traditions you’d like to share?

Related story on MNN: The science of being thankful

MNN tease photo of thank you blocks: Shutterstock

Giving thanks in dark times
The history of this beautiful feast is steeped in dark times — and should serve as a good example for all of us.