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Ten Simple Thanksgiving Rituals

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Thanksgiving today is a holiday when the table is not the only thing that is laden. There are also family expectations, history, interactions, housecleaning and decorating, a day (or days) spent in food preparation, followed often by overeating. It can be stressful. It also can mean hours of trading stories over a meal laced with fellowship.


Thanksgiving is a ritual re-enactment of part of our history, greatly sanitized. In 1621, Pilgrims were grateful for Native American help in surviving those first winters. The relationship between the two peoples went downhill from there, though, as the settler population expanded. Over two hundred years later, Abraham Lincoln set aside a national day of thanksgiving.


The reason for Thanksgiving remains the same—to give thanks for the blessings and abundance that surround us. The grains and vegetables were harvested. The main dish, whether turkey or ham or something else, was once alive and now nourishes you. There is a great deal to celebrate in thanksgiving.


Here are ten suggestions for ways to give thanks with intention:


  1. Make a thanks list. Throughout November, or a specific time period, each day add one entry to a list of things for which you are thankful. Make it something different every day. This may sound daunting, but is easier than it seems. (And saying “I’m grateful for my cat every day, and my cat is different every day” is commendable but also avoiding the exercise.)
  2. Prepare this ritual meal, and it is a ritual meal, with what my grandmother called “simple graces.” The simple grace of performing an action not because you have to do it or someone else expects you to, but as a gift and offering. The intention you hold while preparing the food carries over to those who consume it.
  3. Setting the table, be mindful that each fork, each knife, each spoon, each plate and glass, is placed there to be used by family and friends to eat the food of this meal. It’s like giving a blessing while setting the table.
  4. Candles on the table can represent something you are celebrating. A single candle can be the light of the sun that warms us and helps grow our food, or the light of love and friendship that brings us together. A pair of candles can represent special people or accomplishments celebrated during the year. Three candles can represent the stages of life we all pass through—children, parents, grandparents, or ancestors; past, present, and future; and so forth.




  1. It’s the end of the harvest season. You can give thanks for the abundance of the earth and the food she provides by adding harvest elements such as little pumpkins, gourds, or dried flowers. Have something on the table to represent the elements—fire in the candles, water in the glasses, earth in a rock or ceramic, air in a feather, ether in the blessings and prayers that are offered.
  2. Each family has its own traditions for the beginning of the meal. Sometimes the head of household will offer a blessing, sometimes it’s asked of a guest, sometimes it’s shared, and sometimes there isn’t one at all. This year, try going around the table and asking each person to name one thing they are thankful for. Some will be frivolous or comedic, some pragmatic, and some will appreciate the opportunity to go deep.
  3. Share the meal preparation as a special gift to yourself as well as your family and guests. I prepare the turkey, and everything else, such as appetizers, rolls, vegetables, dessert, gravy, etc., is usually by someone else’s hand. The kitchen is filled with the camaraderie of meal preparation, and I spend a lot of time playing board games with a rotating cast of characters (grandchildren). It is fun.
  4. Involve family members and guests in creating a centerpiece or decorating a doorway. Each person can trace their hand on colored paper, decorate it, and write on it what they are thankful for. These cut-out handprints look remarkably like turkeys (see photo).
  5. Share the abundance. Is there room at your table for one or two more? Invite seniors, singles, or others you know who do not have family with which to share this holiday.
  6. Volunteer to help others at some other time of year. During my years working in a homeless shelter, we and other nonprofit human service agencies had to thank but turn away many willing and generous volunteers who wanted to provide a Thanksgiving meal. Please remember that these agencies serve people or animals all year long. Instead, pledge on Thanksgiving to cook that special meal for a shelter or provide those special treats for an animal sanctuary at some other time of year.


Remember that Christian mystic Meister Eckhart said, “If the only prayer you ever say in your entire life is ‘thank you,’ it will be enough.”


How do you give thanks on this day? What rituals or observances do you use to say thank you?

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