Long before Martin Forbisher and the Forbisher Expedition celebrated Canada’s first Thanksgiving to commemorate successfully reaching what is now Newfoundland during attempts to find the Northwest Passage in 1578, native people held ceremonies in honour of the harvest and a sense of security heading into winter. In Europe, ancient festivities celebrated having sufficient food stores to survive the winter, and to mark the changing of the seasons.
During the 19th century, days of thanks marked community and political accomplishments—the cessation of cholera in Lower Canada, February 6, 1833, the end of war between Great Britain and France in Upper Canada, June 18, 1816, and restoration of peace with Russia in the Province of Canada, June 4, 1856.
In the late 1800s and early 1900s, Thanksgiving Day was observed in October or November to celebrate an abundant harvest and positive relationships with First Nations and from then on it was celebrated in the fall, and it became associated with symbols we still think of today like pumpkins, cornucopia, ears of corn, and large displays of food, many of which were introduced by native peoples.
Many people think of Thanksgiving as one of the least stressful holidays, largely because there are no gifts to buy, and it is centered around abundant food, family gatherings, and gratitude for the finest things in life.
Which brings to mind an important question—what are you grateful for? As history shows, days of thanks have been celebrated thoughout the year, marking accomplishments and collective sighs of relief over the major milestones for which a community or group of people feels immense gratitude.
According to an article in Psychology Today, gratitude is an emotion expressing appreciation for what one has—as opposed to, say, a consumer-oriented emphasis on what one wants or needs—and is currently receiving a great deal of attention as a facet of positive psychology.
“Gratitude is what gets poured into the glass to make it half full,” says the article. “Studies show that gratitude not only can be deliberately cultivated but can increase levels of well-being and happiness among those who do cultivate it. In addition, grateful thinking—and especially expression of it to others—is associated with increased levels of energy, optimism, and empathy.”
The key in this passage is that it can be deliberately cultivated. In a consumer-driven society, we are often encouraged—directly and subliminally—to remain focused on striving, chasing, and accomplishing “more,” whatever form or packaging “more” happens to take on at the moment.
It requires a strong, deliberate focus to take our eyes off of the prize, and look around us and inwards to recognize and acknowledge the beauty of what we already have. If we have happy children, a close family, access to nature, shelter, some kind of security—physical or otherwise—and even our health or the breath we take, we have something to be grateful for.
I used to work with people who were homeless and / or addicted, people with mental health issues, and people whose very existence was crisis driven, each day a matter of survival. It was always interesting and quite amazing, actually, how many times I witnessed true gratitude among a segment of society largely forgotten by those more fortunate. Sometimes having less inspires a greater sense of thanks for the little things.
Your challenge this year, readers and friends, is to find thanks and gratitude in something small, something that is completely yours, something seemingly insignificant that puts air beneath your wings. I feel gratitude for my family, my friends, my health, quiet moments in the woods, and for the ability to observe tiny beauty in unsuspecting places.
Every night I ask my children what their favourite parts of the day were, and what they are grateful for. The responses have varied from, “brownies!” to “you and dad,” and every answer cultivates a sense of awareness for the things that truly move us. For that awareness in them, I am also grateful.
I wish you much gratitude, closeness, and awareness this Thanksgiving and every day of the year.