8 Ways to Give Thanks at the Table
Growing up I was a pretty grateful kid. I appreciated my home, clothing and food, small things like a special rock found by the sidewalk, a hug from my mom, or a butterscotch candy offered by the teller at the bank. But when Thanksgiving day arrived and each person sitting at the table had to say what they were thankful for, I didn't really like saying these things out loud. I don't know if it's because it felt forced, uncomfortable to share openly with extended family I didn't know so well, or that sometimes it all felt a little cheesy, but it didn't really feel like it got to the heart of gratitude for me. Don't get me wrong, I think it's a great practice to take a moment for contemplation and express true gratitude, but over the past few years, I've been trying to instill some new traditions to increase the thankfulness in thanksgiving. Many people have also asked me to share ideas for celebrating Thanksgiving in a way that honors the true history of the holiday, or personal heritage, and a desire to express more gratitude and unity on this day. So, here goes:
8 Ways to give thanks at the Table
- Thankfulness Table Notes (and jokes)
Place little notes on guest's dinner plates with questions, quotes and jokes to help make answering the question "what are you thankful for?" more interesting and fun. Check out this sample list my son and I put together for our meal last year or make up your own!
- Make a Gratitude Tree
Grab a branch and prop it in a vase and place it on or near your dinner table. Cut leaves out of paper (3-4 inches long), punch a hole in the end of each and tie a string in a loop. While family are waiting to eat, ask everyone to write things they are grateful for on the leaves and hang then on the branch. The gratitude tree makes a beautiful center piece, and guests can take turns reading the leaves out loud during or after the meal.
- Give thanks to the land and the original indigenous people who lived (or still live) on this land. Check out this map site and these maps which show the names of Native Nations and where they originally lived across the land we now call America. At the start of your meal, in your own words, give thanks to the land beneath your feet that sustains your home and life, and speak gratitude to the name(s) of the Native Nations who lived in balance with the land before the colonizers arrived. Acknowledge the Native peoples who still live on or near this land, and speak gratitude for their lives. Speak hopes for healing for those from Indigenous descent and European descent, from the genocide and destruction that was committed by colonizers against native peoples, and the oppression and harm still done to them today. Many indigenous people consider Thanksgiving to be a day of mourning. Some participate in a remembrance day event, open to the public at Plymouth Rock in Massachusetts. Check out this True History and Foods of Thanksgiving episode for more info.
- Invite new people to your table
Whether you are opting for a friends-giving meal or a family gathering, try inviting some new people to the table. Ask friends if they need a place to go, or know people who need a place to go, and set another plate or two. It's amazing how much family dynamics can change when there are new people at the table (hopefully for the better!)
- Make offerings to your ancestors
Nearly every culture in the world has a tradition of making offerings of food or prayer to their personal or collective ancestors. At the start of the meal, make a small dish with a sample of each food from the meal. Place this dish in a special place, maybe near some photographs of people in your family who are no longer alive, or place the dish outside by a big tree (an ancestor of the land) or at the entrance to your home as an offering. In the Yoruba tradition practiced in my home, we touch the plate of food offerings to the head and heart of each person at the table before placing it by our ancestor altar. If offering food does not feel comfortable to you, try offering prayers of remembrance and welcome to the ancestors of your family and people of your heritages. You can welcome in the positive ancestors and traditions while acknowledging that you want any harmful traits that may have existed in individuals or oppressive tactics used by whole communities to end and not continue into future generations.
- Share personal stories
To build connection and compassion around your table, try having guests share personal stories about their lives or this past year. Stories about people's personal experiences can move the conversation from the political and theoretical to the intimate. While you are all seated around the table eating, ask guests to share a story about a struggle they had or overcame or an experience that gave them hope this year.
- From my heart to your heart activity
Take a moment of silence at the start of the meal. Eyes can be open or closed for this exercise. Ask guests to place their right hand on their heart and as they take three breathes, to think of a word of gratitude they wish for themselves. Then ask guests to place their left hand on the back of the person to their left and think of a word of gratitude they feel or wish for that person or for the whole group. Starting with yourself speak out loud, first your word of gratitude for yourself, and then for the person next to you. When each person around the table has spoken, have everyone squeeze each others hands as a way of coming together and completing the sharing. This can easily be followed by a prayer or words of thanks for the land, meal and company.
- Write gratitude cards to those you wish to thank in your community
We often forget to thank people in our lives or communities for the small or large things they do. Sending someone a hand written card in the mail with words of appreciation is a very meaningful gift. Make or buy some cards and set them out with pens or markers for guests to write notes to someone they want to thank. This can happen throughout the day, or even as a whole group at the end of the meal after plates are cleared at the table.
For more, listen to The True History and Foods of Thanksgiving
What traditions or ideas do you have for coming together and showing gratitude at the table? Please share below.