Embracing Gratitude Practices for your Thanksgiving Celebration

Chances are if you ask just about anyone what quality they associate with Thanksgiving, they’ll say “gratitude”… not a big surprise, since the holiday literally mean “giving thanks!”

But if we dig deeper, we find that holidays of gratitude are celebrated all around the world, usually in the Fall and in recognition of the harvest.

From the American and Canadian Thanksgiving, the Jewish Succoth, Germany’s Erntedankfest or “harvest of thanks,” and China’s mid-autumn Moon Festival, humans innately know the importance of expressing gratitude for the bounty of the Earth.

Then there are other variations, like Japan’s Kinro Kansha no Hi (Labor Thanksgiving Day) which evolved from an ancient rice harvest festival. Rather than big family feasts, citizens celebrate the principles of hard work and community involvement, and children are encouraged to make thank-you cards for policemen, firefighters, or other municipal workers.

Of course, the idea of maintaining an ongoing, daily consciousness of gratefulness has been gaining traction for a while as a viable way to make us happy. There are now academic studies that suggest that feelings of thankfulness help people achieve a positive sense of the self and cope with daily problems and stress more effectively.

And in recent brain-scanning studies, neuroscientists have found that maintaining a practice of gratitude may actually re-wire the brain in more permanent ways. Among other things, they’ve identified gratitude as a higher brain state that releases a self-rewarding, feel-good neurotransmitter.

That alone is enough to get me to adopt an ongoing attitude of gratitude. But let’s start by creating some simple practices you can do on your own, as well as some rituals you can do with friends and family when you gather for your own Thanksgiving celebration.

First, some easy gratitude hacks you can incorporate into your life.

1. Start or re-activate a gratitude journal. By now, everyone’s probably heard of gratitude journals. You can spend five to ten minutes each morning listing all the things you’re thankful for or just record one biggie before going to bed.

For many years, my sister-in-law simply kept a piece of yellow lined notebook paper on their fridge, adding her little “grateful-fors” whenever the spirit moved her. It worked for her and even made me feel good when I got a chance to read them!

2. Express appreciation to others. Dr. Tal Ben-Shaharlectures all over the world on positive psychology and takes the idea of gratitude journals one step further. He believes we should regularly express appreciation directly to the people in our lives, as well. He and his wife have a little weekly ritual of doing just that.

It only takes a few minutes, and you can just imagine the impact on their relationship, especially at the end of a tough week.

3. Adopt a mini-yoga practice of Sun Salutations. As we move into the darkest months of the year, make a point to do some special “sun appreciation” whenever you can.

If you’re familiar with Sun Salutations (google it if you’re not), just perform a few in the morning right after you get up. Even if you’ve never done yoga, you can simply face the sun and take a few minutes to stand still and feel its warmth. Envision it flowing into your mind, heart, and body, and send back a little “thank you” for its light.

If you’re celebrating Thanksgiving with a group, here are a few different ideas to try:

1. Initiate a “gratitude exchange”. Invite everyone to bring a little memento to give away. You can put a limit on the dollar amount (e.g. no more than $10), or size (must fit in the palm of your hand), or even have  them bring a special item of their own that they’re willing to part with.

Place everyone’s name on a slip of paper in a bowl and have each person draw a name. (You might have to wiggle things around a little bit towards the end, so no one draws themselves!). One at a time, they can offer their little token to whoever they picked and express why they’re grateful for that person or what they appreciate about them.

2. Create a mealtime gratitude ritual. The dinnertime gratitude-sharing is a favorite one for many families on holidays, but you can jazz it up by passing a bowl of rose-scented water around the table and invite everyone to drop a smooth glass stone or marble into it as they offer what they’re grateful for.

The water stays nearby during the meal to be infused with all of the happy (hopefully!) family mealtime vibes. Then, you can send everyone home with one of the stones and/or some water for a keepsake, or just water some of your favorite plants and watch them thrive with all that positive energy!

3. Explore together the origins of our American Thanksgiving. We now know that the story of “pilgrims and Indians” happily feasting together that we all learned as children was pretty white-washed. But rather than focusing on that negative narrative, Indigenous chef, Sean Sherman suggests that we can still “focus simply on values that apply to everybody: togetherness, generosity and gratitude. And [we can acknowledge and celebrate that] most of our Thanksgiving recipes are made with indigenous foods: turkey, corn, beans, pumpkins, maple, wild rice, and the like. We should embrace this.”

In my Thanksgiving YouTube video from 2020, I share more about the different ways to embrace the multi-faceted meanings of this holiday, and even offer a beautiful gratitude chant at the end that you can sing with me!

Experiment with some of these practices this Thanksgiving and see if you don’t feel an inner shift — maybe a re-anchoring — that can carry you through the upcoming holidays and into the new year.

Connect with Deborah on The Wellness Universe.

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