In a way, it’s unfortunate that Thanksgiving is an official holiday.
Don’t get me wrong; I love the turkey feast with all the trimmings, love the excuse to gather family and friends, love telling my daughters about that first Thanksgiving at Plymouth in 1621 when the English settlers thanked the Native Americans and God for helping them produce a successful harvest.
But sometimes I think that the act of proclaiming an official holiday has the unintended consequence of pigeonholing the very thing we’re supposed to be celebrating. When we set aside one day to celebrate something, most people — because we’re lazy and selfish and busy — tend to feel like we’re off the hook for the other 364 days of the year.
Of course there’s value in holidays, in celebrations. But have you ever thought, for instance, that Valentine’s Day is a little strange? Aren’t we supposed to show love to those we love every day? Why set aside February 14 for that specific purpose? Same goes for Mother’s Day. I even wonder whether Jesus’s birth would feel closer to us all year long if we didn’t confine it to December 25.
I suspect the same thing about Thanksgiving.
I noticed it the day after Halloween; once the calendar turned to November, people started writing daily Facebook lists of everything they were thankful for. A blog I follow encouraged people to create Thanksgiving trees, with paper leaves of thanks to be hung each day until Thanksgiving. These are wonderful practices. But what happens the day after Thanksgiving? If we’ve spent almost a month in a thankfulness binge, working ourselves up into a frenzy of gratitude in preparation for The Big Day, doesn’t it logically follow that on November 29 we’ll find ourselves in thankfulness burnout?
The facts suggest yes. Because November 29 will be Black Friday, when millions of people across the country will spend hours lined up at stores in order to buy stuff. Isn’t this consumption, this longing after what we think we need, the very opposite of thanksgiving? Less than twenty-four hours after giving thanks for our plenty, we’re right back to dissatisfaction, craving more and newer and better. And for most of us, that’s where we’ll stay until November 1 rolls around again.
I’ve lived nearly four decades, which means that (hopefully) I’ve learned a few things. And I believe that GRATITUDE — or its lack — forms the root system of our lives.
That may sound a little dramatic, but bear with me. How we live — the choices we make, how we deal with challenges, the things we cherish — springs from our worldview. Are we optimists or pessimists? Hopeful or despairing? Do we see beauty and meaning around us, or ugliness and chaos? And I firmly believe that our worldview is directly shaped by our ability to feel gratitude.
I’m not just talking about gratitude when the sky is blue and the birds are singing and you’ve just met the love of your life; I’m talking about gratitude at all times, even when the sky is gray and the kids are sick and you’re exhausted and haven’t talked to your husband in a week. It’s easy to be grateful when everything’s going your way, but most days aren’t like that. There are days when my husband — my gratitude inspiration — says, “Well, thankfully we’re not mining coal.” There are days when the best he can come up with is, “Well, I’m grateful we’re not in prison.”
But if gratitude is the root system of your life, then you can almost always find it. From the smallest thing, like the way that leaf just drifted down, to major things like family and friends and GOD, gratitude can transcend our present circumstances and give us hope. It can turn pessimism to optimism, chaos to meaning.
The thing about root systems is that they’re always there, regardless of what’s going on above the surface. This fall, my daughter’s preschool asked families to volunteer for various maintenance tasks. I signed us up for “putting the garden to bed for winter,” because it sounded fun to do with the kids — and also because my parents (excellent gardeners) were coming to town. “Putting the garden to bed” sounds sweet, like you’re tucking it under a comforter with a glass of milk. But really, it involves chopping and raking and yanking, getting rid of all the dead leaves and debris. When we were finished, the garden looked like a flat, lifeless patch of scorched earth. But it isn’t, because the roots are still alive underground.
I see this is my own yard, too. We live in the woods, and I’m forever waging war against trees that want to encroach upon the small clearing around our house. Every spring I take my shears and chop down the seedlings that have pushed through — and I have to do this every spring, because the living roots underground always send up new shoots.
That’s how gratitude is: always there, running under the surface and pushing up shoots of hope regardless of weather or crazy homeowners with shears. But gratitude takes practice; we have to train our eyes and our hearts to see the world through a lens of thankfulness. That’s why parents have to nag their children to say “Thank you” — it’s not in our nature.
And that’s why I hope that we all might start seeing gratitude as a year-round marathon, not just a pre-Thanksgiving sprint. Maybe this year, we won’t just give thanks on Thanksgiving. Maybe this November 29, instead of hitting the stores for a new battery-operated something, we can set aside some time to keep exercising our gratitude.