The First Thanksgiving Tree

Larger Tree with thanksgiving decorations

In the days leading up to Thanksgiving, Experience Gateway Church in Williamsport, MD was abuzz with activity as volunteers finalized preparation for Thanksgiving.

On the Saturday before Thanksgiving Day, members of the church would go door-to-door delivering turkeys and boxes containing non-perishable items such as canned goods and pie mixes.

Then, on Sunday, they would give out more than 200 additional turkeys and kits in the main lobby of their church – the lobby that now included a large Christmas tree.

The Pogue family (owners of CVTS-L) had been put in charge of selecting a live Christmas tree for the church, and they came through in a big way by sourcing, transporting and assembling a 13-foot Douglas Fir from Elliot’s Tree Farm in Willow Hill, PA.

While it might not be a sin per se, it put the church in violation of a major social faux pas: putting up Christmas decorations prematurely.

When compared against communities in need and the larger reason for the season, it might seem frivolous, but that doesn’t change the fact that the event organizers now had to make a decision regarding the tree.

While retail stores and television programming were content to start the holiday season the day after Halloween, there was some reluctance to putting Christmas decorations on the tree before Thanksgiving.

On the other hand, nobody liked the idea of it being bare during the giveaway.

And then something simple-yet-profound happened. Experience Gateway’s office administrator, Miranda Justice, began to decorate it in classic fall colors. Metal milk cans were filled with seasonal flowers and placed on top of meticulously stacked crates. Instead of a star or angel, the tree was topped with a brown bow.

The result was a shrine to gratitude that stood just over 20 turkeys tall (the average Thanksgiving turkey being 7.5” tall): the church’s first Thanksgiving Tree.

Ushering in a Season of Gratitude and Grace

When Sunday finally arrived, the meals were distributed in two waves. Some recipients attended the 10 a.m. service and received their turkey and box when it concluded. Another group of recipients arrived between 1 and 2 p.m.

“We didn’t want to force anyone to come to the service, but we wanted to help the community” said Executive Pastor Rodney Rhodes.

And the needs of the community were much greater this year due to inflation.

“We definitely ran out of everything this year,” he added.

When supplies ran low, they sent members of the church out to find more turkeys to make sure that no one was left out. They were also able to provide meals to an independent living home that helps out mothers in need.

“It went over, and there were some other people who needed,” said Rhodes of the challenge of making sure everyone got enough, “so we kind of did what we needed to do.”

The Thanksgiving turkey giveaway event is in addition to the church’s many other community outreach initiatives, which include a food pantry that is open every second and fourth Thursday of each month.

The Thanksgiving Tree: A New Tradition?

“The tree was awesome,” said Rhodes of the transformed Christmas tree. “It was beautiful, a real focal point. People loved it. It just made it really seem very festive. It really worked out well.”

It had started as an accident, but it’s on its way to being a tradition. Rhodes is already thinking about setting up next year’s Thanksgiving tree.

“How can we make this work? How can we make this a part of everything?” asked Rhodes. “We’re going to have to do that every year.”