The power of giving thanks

A festival at the time of gathering the harvest is one of the oldest customs in the world.

Yme Woensdregt

Why do we give thanks this weekend?

Canadians don’t have the kind of mythology that Americans have about Thanksgiving. For them, it’s part of the founding myth of their nation. It’s the story of the Pilgrim settlement (some would call it the Pilgrim occupation of the land), and their first years in the new land. For us, thanksgiving is a harvest festival.

A festival at the time of gathering the harvest is one of the oldest customs in the world. It’s a time set aside to give thanks. India’s rice harvest festival, Pongol, is held in January. Nigeria has a New Yam Festival which falls in July or August. Many cultures celebrate the harvest as a sacred time. In Swaziland, the ceremony known as Incwala is the most important traditional holiday. It celebrates both the harvest and binds the nation to its king.

Canada’s first thanksgiving was celebrated by Martin Frobisher in Newfoundland in 1578. The first official Canadian Thanksgiving Day was celebrated on April 5, 1872 in gratitude for the Prince of Wales’ recovery from an illness. In 1957, Parliament declared the second Monday in October as “a day of general Thanksgiving to Almighty God for the bountiful harvest with which Canada has been blessed.”

When we give thanks for harvest, we acknowledge that while there is much we can do, at a deep level it’s beyond our control. Most of us have forgotten that. We don’t know what it means to count on the seasons. We don’t have to worry about getting enough rain or sun at just the right time so that our crops can grow. We don’t have to fertilize or cultivate the land or bring in the harvest.

When we need food, all we have to do is hop in the car, go to the store or the farmer’s market where it’s ready for us, pre–packaged and shrink–wrapped. We can get what we want when we want it — even strawberries in April. It seems as if we are in control. We’ve lost that sense of looking to the skies for the right weather, that sense of waiting for crops to grow in their own time, that sense of gratitude when everything works together.

Part of the result of such an “instant society” is that we’ve forgotten how to be grateful. We are much more adept at grumbling and complaining.

Dennis Prager, author of “Happiness is a Serious Problem: A Human Nature Repair Manual” writes that “Gratitude isn’t an emotion most of us cultivate.” Even on Thanksgiving, we are more likely to concentrate on the turkey or the television or getting the leaves raked up than on giving thanks.

But “gratitude has an extraordinary power to improve our lives”. It’s more than simply good manners. According to Prager, “the value in giving thanks … is nothing less than the key to happiness … The secret to happiness is gratitude. All happy people are grateful, and ungrateful people cannot be happy. We tend to think that it is being unhappy that leads people to complain, but it is truer to say that it is complaining that leads to people becoming unhappy. Become grateful and you will become a much happier person.”

This is why Christian faith places such emphasis on thanking God. Worship is filled with expressions of gratitude. The Psalms are filled with effusive praise to God and gratitude for all God has done.

Why? Not because God needs our gratitude. C.S. Lewis, in his reflections on the Psalms, asked why it was that God expected human beings to praise him. Lewis’ conclusion is that it’s not because God needs our praise. It’s because we need it. When we praise God, we enhance our enjoyment of what we are grateful for. Learning to be thankful is the best vaccination against taking good fortune for granted. And the less you take for granted, the more pleasure and joy life will bring you.

Prager reminds us that happiness is a craft which needs to be practiced. “Unhappiness is easy. Happiness takes hard work.” He suggests that the pursuit of moderation, depth, wisdom, clarity, goodness, and the transcendent will help us attain happiness.

It can be hard to do. Like most useful skills, it takes years of practice before it becomes second nature. This is one reason that religion, sincerely practiced, leads to happiness. It ingrains the habits of thankfulness, and as gratitude becomes part of who we are, we open the door to gladness.

Margaret Visser gives the same advice in her book, “The Gift of Thanks”. “Gratitude is always a matter of paying attention, of deliberately beholding and appreciating the other.”

This Thanksgiving, we can resolve not to take the gifts in our lives for granted. Instead let us pay attention, deliberately appreciating all the gifts in our lives, and cultivating an attitude of gratitude.

Yme Woensdregt is Pastor at Christ Church Anglican in Cranbrook