Thanksgiving and Gratitude

James Bemis is a columnist for the Los Angeles Daily News.

(Copyright 2001 Catholic Exchange)

To me, those lacking a sense of thankfulness are more to be pitied than censured. Ungratefulness even serves as its own punishment: Ingrates, like spoiled children, are rarely happy people.

Thanksgiving gives us the opportunity to fulfill this great longing: the heartfelt need to express appreciation to someone or something for what we’ve been given. Maybe that’s why people love this holiday so much – there’s something so vital, so necessary about it. Try imagining a holiday season without Thanksgiving; it would be like attending a church service without saying a prayer.

Too often, though, we’re so caught up in the concrete duties of Thanksgiving – shopping, cooking, serving, visiting, cleaning – that we haven’t time to reflect upon the role this holiday plays in our family and cultural lives. Perhaps now, with memory so fresh of the fragility and preciousness of life, is that time.

Growing up, I loved the cozy happiness of getting ready for the day’s big feast, our bustling kitchen smelling of roasted turkey, cinnamon-spiced pumpkin pies, and fresh, creamy eggnog. Wood crackled and popped as it burned in the fireplace, pushing back the morning’s chill. Awaiting the arrival of family and friends was an aching agony of expectation, the tormented postponement of imminent delight.

Once everyone gathered in the living room, the laughter and tall tales began: mothers competing to exaggerate their children’s virtues, fathers to overstate their vices. For football fans, games start early and end late. Everyone was a friend that day, even cousins you couldn’t stand the rest of the year.

Best of all, though, was Thanksgiving’s sentiment – the teary, lump-in-the-throat gratitude for all of God’s blessings. That, even more than the food, family, and friends, is what really made the day special. Even our family nonbelievers gave thanks before food was served, although I never quite figured out whom it was they thanked.

It seemed so natural to me to believe that a higher being existed, providing us with everything that made us happy. Nobody I knew was smart enough to have made trees, dogs, sunshine, and other things I loved. Not recognizing this, it seemed, confused being a creature with being a Creator. This was the only way the world made sense.

And if someone provided all this for us, it seemed only right to give Him thanks, and so we have Thanksgiving. This may be the simple calculus of a child, but over the years my beliefs about the holiday haven’t really changed all that much.

We seem to instinctively know that it is right to give thanks, although we don’t all agree to whom we owe our appreciation. As the French proverb puts it, “Gratitude is the heart’s memory.” And, I might add, the heart’s desire too.

And maybe that’s the point. The Thanksgiving tradition the Pilgrims began in 1621 still endures because the human heart needs to give thanks, just as the human mind wants to understand. Expressing gratitude is remembrance of our dependence on others, a confession of our humanity, and a way of recognizing that we do not walk alone.

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