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November, 2007

Giving Thanks
by Leonard J. Pellman

November is traditionally a month of “Thanksgiving” in the United States and Japan.  The United States officially celebrates Thanksgiving Day on the fourth Thursday of November, and Japan celebrates Labor Thanksgiving Day 勤労感謝の日(Kinrō Kansha no Hi) on November 23rd.  Each of these thanksgiving celebrations has a tradition that is centuries old.

Kinrō Kansha no Hi was instituted in 1948 to supplant the ancient Japanese tradition of Niiname Sai (新嘗祭), a Shintō festival in which the emperor or empress would dedicate the harvest to kami (Shintō spirits) and ceremonially taste the new rice harvest for the first time – a tradition that has been followed annually for more than 1,300 years.  Like most ancient civilizations, Europeans also held festivals to celebrate each year’s harvest.  These celebrations were typically held on or around the autumnal equinox (Northern Hemisphere), which usually occurs on September 23rd, or as soon thereafter as the harvest was completed.  In pagan societies, various gods, spirits, or Mother Earth might receive offerings or other expressions of gratitude for the harvest, but “Thanksgiving” as it is currently celebrated in North America probably has its truest origins in the Jewish festival of SukkotSukkot is a seven-day pilgrimage festival culminating in the Feast of Huts on the 15th of Tishri (late September to late October) that commemorates God’s provision for the Hebrew people during their 40 years of exile in the Wilderness following the exodus from Egypt.  This is most likely the biblical source for the later Christian tradition of thanksgiving festivals.

The notable similarity between all of these ancient harvest celebrations is that – after investing months of back-breaking work to plant, prune, weed, protect, and harvest their crops – people set aside time to express gratitude to a power outside of themselves for meeting their most essential needs, rather than their own ingenuity and industriousness.  Was this merely primitive superstition?  Or something deeper?

By expressing gratitude to God, spirits, or the earth for their prosperity, these celebrants were also expressing their understanding that no one is truly in control of their own destiny.  It is the height of arrogance to think that our fate is not ultimately outside our ability to control.  Whether it is merely luck, the intervention of spirits, or God’s benevolence, our prosperity is not actually determined by whether we earn or deserve it.  Many receive much more than they deserve; others receive far less than they deserve.  Among other things, then, Thanksgiving celebrations recognize that life is inherently unfair and we should be grateful whenever things work out in our favor.

This certainly must have been the case for the pilgrims of the Plymouth colony on that first “American” Thanksgiving.  102 voyagers had set sail from England.  After suffering from scurvy and other diseases and hardships on the two-month voyage to the New World, 45 had died during their first winter in Massachusetts, and another 6 died in the spring and summer, so that only 53 remained when the first harvest was taken in.  Even the indigenous tribespeople had suffered severely that winter, so they joined the pilgrims in their three-day festival.  It was actually two years later that the pilgrims held their first true “Thanksgiving” in the sense that it is celebrated in the U.S. today.

But, for those three days, two very dissimilar cultural groups, who had skirmished prior to that time and would battle again many times, were able to set aside their differences and celebrate together the defeat of a common enemy:  starvation.  There are many lessons to be learned from that first American harvest festival – lessons about faith, tolerance, mutual cooperation, and the fellowship of humankind – lessons that few seem to have taken to heart in the ensuing centuries.  But, the most important lesson for us individually is the power of gratitude.

Gratitude is a choice.  Many have learned to be grateful for what little they have, while others – even the fabulously wealthy – are consumed by an obsession only with what they lack.  Gratitude is a choice that infuses your life with joy and hope.  While ingratitude permeates your life with greed, envy, jealousy, bitterness, hatred, and despair.  It gnaws at your soul and spirit and will ultimately destroy them both.

Are you grateful for everything you have, no matter how little it may be?  Or are you mired in bitterness over how unfair life has been to you?

Gratitude is liberating!  It frees us from emotional bondage to anger, envy, jealousy, greed, and bitterness toward the unfairness of life or those who enjoy greater prosperity.

As we celebrate Thanksgiving this month, make the holiday about more than simply gorging yourself with food.  Even make it more than sharing a joyous time with friends and family.  Take time to truly count your blessings.  It wouldn’t hurt to make a list of all the good things in your life, and to acknowledge that you have those things because of something other than just your own efforts.

And remember, if you can’t think of anything to put on your list, it’s not because you don’t have them!  It’s because you’ve become blinded to the many blessings that you do enjoy.

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2003   Leonard J. Pellman

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