Give Thanks with a Grateful Heart
Our neighbours to the south are just winding up their great holiday weekend of gratitude; we Canadians celebrated ours about 7 weeks ago. I think our mutual Thanksgiving celebrations reflect our national personalities, in some respects. Ours comes first, on the second Monday of October, probably as much a product of our harsher climate, and the wish to enjoy some of our celebration out of doors, or at least be able to bring some of the outdoors in. In most regions of Canada, the leaves have fallen along with the temperatures by mid-November, and the barren landscape hardly provokes celebration. That comes a month later when bare branches and stubbled fields have been blanketed in white velvet in much of our country and we revel in Christmas.
Many of the hockey wives I teamed up with during my husband’s playing days, both Americans, and Canadians who had lived in the U.S., loved the late November positioning of the American celebration of gratitude. One Canadian-born goalie's wife in Montreal told me she just loved the way the American Thanksgiving kick-started the Holiday Season. When Ryan played, we always seemed to celebrate both.
We celebrated our first Canadian Thanksgiving in the United Staes when Ryan was the Captain of the Washington Capitals. Ryan picked me up at Baltimore International Airport and I insisted that we stop at Giant Foods on our way to Davidsonville to gather groceries. Little did I realize how close I was cutting things to curfew (I had a lot to learn about hockey) – but we purchased the essentials: a turkey, cranberries, potatoes, celery, onion, and bread for stuffing, and the one ingredient I cannot be without – rutabaga. As delicious as it is, mashed with butter, pepper, and brown sugar, it is the cooking water that adds such depth of flavour to the gravy, that I cannot do without.
That night, right after we had put the groceries away, Ryan, who was the leading scorer in the NHL at that point, proposed to me on bended knee beside the glowing wood stove. I had no prior inkling whatsoever that this was about to take place! When we cooked our meal on Monday, we had much to be thankful for.
I remember a particularly momentous American Thanksgiving in Montreal. We had invited some of the American players and their families over as well as well as Expos' closer Tim Burke and his lovely wife Christine, who had become very close friends. As we sat in the dining room of our 300-year-old house (it was such an amazing home), the earth moved. The china vibrating in our pine hutch made it seem like the whole earth was acknowledging its debt to the Creator. It was exhilarating!
Americans claim the celebration of Thanksgiving began with a shared feast between the Pilgrims who, one year after arriving at Plymouth Rock fresh off the Mayflower, and promptly surviving the first harsh winter in the New World, celebrated the harvest with members of the Wampanoag tribe in 1621. Other historians say the first American Thanksgiving feast was celebrated a few years earlier in Virginia.
Either way, the first Thanksgiving on Canadian soil predates the American one. Sir Martin Frobisher and his crew celebrated their safe arrival in Newfoundland in 1578 with a menu of salt beef, biscuits and mushy peas. This religious celebration also included Communion and an exhortation by the ship’s Chaplain, Robert Wolfall, who, according to explorer Richard Collinson, “made unto them a godly sermon, exhorting them especially to be thankefull to God for theyr strange and miraculous deliverance in those so dangerous places.”
After trying out various days for the annual Canadian Thanksgiving holiday, including Armistice Day on Nov 11th, and various important Royal occasions, our government settled officially on the second Monday of October, proclaiming, in 1959: “a day of General Thanksgiving to Almighty God for the bountiful harvest with which Canada has been blessed.”
George Washington proclaimed Thanksgiving to be a National Holiday in 1789 and Abraham Lincoln made it a federal holiday (one of our American friends needs to educate me on the difference) in 1863. It was to be celebrated on the last Thursday of November with "Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens."
President Roosevelte changed the date to the 4th Thursday in November, celebrating it a little earlier allegedly to give the country an economic boost. Little did he know that Black Friday and then Cyber Monday would attempt to turn the emphasis from giving thanks to our Heavenly Father to celebrating the almighty dollar. And before we Canadians sanctimoniously declare ourselves superior, all of those sales have crept north via the internet and, perish the thought, have even been adopted by many Canadian merchants up here.
I have nothing against entrepreneurialism, but there is a great deal to be said in favour of North Americans, in their entirety, returning to the original purpose of celebrating Thanksgiving. As it turns out, gratitude is beneficial for our health, relationships, and general well being. An attitude of gratitude:
Mood neurotransmitters (serotonin, norepinephrine) Inflammatory and immune systems (cytokines)
Reproductive hormones (testosterone) Stress hormones (cortisol)
Social bonding hormones (oxytocin) Blood pressure, cardiac and EEG rhythms
Cognitive and pleasure related neurotransmitters Blood sugar
Gratitude reduces aggression, increases sensitivity towards others, and makes us less likely to seek retaliation or revenge. Grateful people are happier and more optimistic, sleep better, are more likely to exercise (yes – there has been a study on that!), have happier relationships, and perform better at work.
And guess what? An attitude of gratitude can be cultivated. One of the best ways to benefit from gratitude is to write down 3 things we are grateful for before we sleep. Believe it or not, this was found in one study to be more effective than Prozac for reducing depression (I am not recommending that anyone stop medication here, but what a great addition, or better yet, prevention!!!). We can all find 3 things to be grateful for, even if it is 1) having air to breathe, 2) lungs to breathe with, and 3) a pen and paper with which to write about the first two.
Other great gratitude rituals include giving thanks before we eat and of course the wonderful tradition of gathering annually with loved ones to give thanks for our many blessings. These time-honoured rituals of public expression actually increase the benefits we receive from feeling grateful. And, those benefits are contagious.
Hockey Coaches take note: In one study managers who expressed gratitude saw a 50 percent increase in their employees' performance. Another study found that 80% of employees would be willing to work harder for an appreciative boss, and 70% said they’d feel better about themselves and their efforts if their boss thanked them more regularly. In a separate study, fundraising callers who received gratitude from their Director before starting, made 50% more calls than their counterparts who received no thanks before beginning. There is reason to believe that coaches who do likewise will see a similar increase in their team’s effort, performance, and self-esteem.
What if we don’t feel grateful? Then fake it ‘til you make it. According to Dr. Kelly Turner, “Evidence suggests that we can actively choose to practice gratitude — and that doing so raises our happiness.” Say and write words of thanks often enough, and the feeling will follow.
Finally, I believe it matters that we are actually grateful to someone. For believers, this is natural; we are given exhortations to have, and examples of, a thankful heart throughout the Bible. We can think it, say it, write it, sing it and meditate on it. When we are thankful for our children and spouses, besides thanking our Creator for having Blessed us with them, we need to tell them as well. According to a University of Georgia study, expressions of spousal gratitude were a significant predictor of marital quality, and that couples who showed higher levels of spousal gratitude were less prone to seek divorce.
We Canadians and Americans have engaged in uplifting, communal, public rituals of gratitude over the past two months. This practice of Thanksgiving has a storied history of more than four centuries on our continent, and a much longer one beyond. Here’s to keeping it going, inwardly, outwardly, and in community, or for the hockey aficionados, in our Inner, Outer, and Team Games!
CNN Health November 26, 20154
Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 2003: 84(2); 377-389 (PDF)5
Harvard Mental Health Letter November 2011