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Why Gathering for Thanksgiving Matters … and Always Will

By Barbara Rainey

First posted on

Our youngest child was just a toddler. Our oldest was double digits but not yet a teen. We were spending Thanksgiving as we had the previous six years at a conference we hosted for singles in Colorado called the Keystone Kaper.

While the event was always amazing ministry and fun for our kids to learn to ski, it was not ideal family time. My husband was in charge—speaking, greeting attendees and other speakers—and generally pre-occupied by his job. While I understood and supported his work, my heart was longing for a way to begin to build memories and traditions for our family.

In our rented condo that year, I read a few stories to our children about the spiritual history of our country. After I finished I asked all six to write or color what they wanted to thank God for in their lives.

Our toddler told me what she was thankful for, I wrote her words, and she scribbled on the notebook paper. It was a short, simple little devotion time, and though I didn’t know it then it was the beginning of a 30-plus-year tradition for our family.

A new era of holiday decisions

Last year was the first in decades that we missed our favorite family tradition. Did you too? Thanksgiving celebrations for almost everyone were upended in 2020.

One year later we are still finding our footing on shifting sand. Like any trauma survivor who evaluates life with new eyes, many of us are re-evaluating why we do what we do. Most churches, for example, have not yet recovered their pre-2020 attendance—members are still reluctant to gather in large groups, families have become accustomed to watching online in pajamas, while others have decided church attendance just isn’t important in their lives anymore.

Family holiday gatherings are being questioned, too. Some family members remain anxious about crowds, but for others the break last year opened the door to new ideas or options.

Americans are fiercely independent. We are also addicted to comfort and to the pleasures of ease. So this year traveling “over the river and through the woods to grandmother’s house” has lost its nostalgic magnetism. It has lost its obligation. And for some this year, Thanksgiving just isn’t as important as it once was.

While new possibilities can be good, I’m concerned we might lose the invisible benefits of gathering, especially with family.

Our family has experienced these invisible benefits over the years. After we concluded our season of hosting singles conferences, we were free to travel on Thanksgiving to my mother’s farm where the rest of our family had started gathering several years before. Now, 30-plus years later, I see the importance of those yearly connections, specifically Dennis’s and my personal attachment to my nephews and nieces. And though our kids only saw their cousins once a year, those annual investments of time built lasting relationships. Bonfires, four-wheeler rides, jokes, and always chocolate chip cookies turned into teenage conversations in the kitchen with Uncle Dennis after Grandma and Grandpa went to bed.

In 2019 Dennis led the four newly married cousins in our rendition of the newlywed game. Nearly 40 of us crammed in the living room of the 100-year-old farm house laughed hilariously for two hours, including my mother who had just turned 94! None of us will ever forget it.

I would have never imagined then how attached I’d feel to these now 20- and 30-something nieces and nephews today with only a once-a-year opportunity to be together. I love them like my own kids.

Who thought up families anyway?

God created families. It was his idea in Genesis. And He imagined both biological, spiritual, and families formed by adoption as God made clear through Paul when he wrote, “In love He predestined us for adoption to Himself as sons through Jesus Christ” (Ephesians 1:5). We are related to our families of origin by blood and bonding. And we are related by the blood of Christ to brothers and sisters in the faith.

God is our Father. He bought us with the blood of His Son and it matters to Him that His children gather together in His name. This theme is woven throughout the Bible like a red ribbon through a garland of green. Gathering is not insignificant to God, for He tells us plainly, “For where two or three are gathering in My name, there am I among them” (Matthew 18:20).

Five reasons gathering with family matters at Thanksgiving

1. God established annual feasts and ceremonies. He instituted these occasions for His people to keep them connected to Himself and each other. He knew then and now that all humans are “prone to wander” so He built annual gatherings into the rhythm of life. And He declared them mandatory in Exodus 23:14: “Three times in the year you shall keep a feast to Me.”