Reading Time: 5 minutes

(First appeared on November 19, 2007.)

leaves329898Thanksgiving — one of my very favorite holidays — is mentioned twice in Parenting Beyond Belief. “There should be no difficulty in secularly observing a holiday dedicated to gratitude,” I wrote in “Losing the Holy and Keeping the Day” :

“We can express to each other our thankfulness for each other, for our good fortune, and for life itself. No eavesdropping deity required. There is an additional opportunity to note that the Puritan pilgrims were pursuing the kind of freedom of religious observance to which secularists should be devoted – fleeing harassment and religious persecution in England and heading to the New World where they were free at last to burn witches. Okay, leave that part out.”

The book explores the issue of gratitude a bit further, naming it one of the “Seven Secular Virtues”:

The most terrible moment for an atheist, someone once said, is when he feels grateful and has no one to thank. I suppose it was meant to be witty, but it’s pretty silly. Nonbelievers of all stripes should and do indeed feel enormously grateful for many things, and I’m not aware of any terrible moments. Whereas religious folks teach their children to funnel all gratitude skyward, humanists and atheists can thank the actual sources of the good things we experience, those who actually deserve praise but too often see it deflected past them and on to an imaginary being.

We have no difficulty reminding the four-year-old to “say thank you” when Grandma hands her an ice cream cone, but in other situations – especially when a religious turn-of-phrase is generally used – we often pass up the chance to teach our kids to express gratitude in naturalistic terms. Instead of thanking God for the food on your table, thank those who really put it there – the farmers, the truckers, the produce workers, and Mom or Dad or Aunt Millicent. They deserve it. Maybe you’d like to lean toward the Native American and honor the animals for the sacrifice of their lives – a nice way to underline our connection to them. You can give thanks to those around the table for being present, and for their health, and for family and friendship itself. There is no limit. Even when abstract, like gratitude for health, the simple expression of gratitude is all that is needed. No divine ear is necessary – we are surrounded by real ears and by real hearers.

Group prayer of any kind, including religious grace, has always bothered me. It’s coercive, for one thing, and one person speaks for everyone, assuming a uniformity that is never really accurate. After the “amen,” I always want to submit a minority opinion: “I consent to clauses 1, 2, and 4, but dissent from 3 and 5 for reasons as follows…”

On several occasions, I’ve even seen group prayer used manipulatively (“And may the Lord bless and protect those among us who have been making unwise choices lately” [all eyes go to cousin Billy]).

BUT…the options to religious grace can bring their own problems. The old “moment of silence” can feel hollow; others can seem a bit forced (humanist meditations with Baptist intonations); while some, even if accurate, seem both abstract and forced (“thank you to the truckers and turkey wranglers and assembly-line workers”).

The best option I’ve ever heard just arrived in my inbox yesterday in the form of a short story by Wisconsin author/educator Marilyn LaCourt (The Prize, 2004):

Thanksgiving Ritual
by M. LaCourt

Last year I had a wonderful Thanksgiving dinner at my friend’s house. I arrived just as we were being invited to take our places at the table and I felt a little awkward because I didn’t know a number of the other guests. I looked toward the kitchen expecting someone to bring on the food. It sure smelled good, and I was hungry.

Imagine my confusion when my host looked around the table at each of his guests and asked, “Who wants to start?”

I knew there was supposed to be food, but I still didn’t see any, not even a relish dish or a breadbasket to pass. What were we supposed to do? Pass imaginary bowls filled with imaginary mashed potatoes, stuffing, turkey and cranberry sauce? No one spoke.

Finally my host’s eyes settled on his seven-year-old niece.

Cindy stood up, cleared her throat and smiled at her brother. “Thank you, Jimmy, for teaching me to play games on your computer.”

Jimmy blushed and said, “You’re welcome.”

Eric, a nice looking young man with bright blue eyes was next. He thanked his parents for giving him his first telescope when he was ten, and for the many hours they spent encouraging his appreciation for the wonders of the universe. I learned later that Eric had been accepted into a post graduate program to study Astronomy.

My friend, Ron, the host, said thank you to his wife. “I really appreciate the way you put up with my complaining, your understanding and patience with my cause fighting. I love the wonderful meals you prepare for me everyday, your companionship and your sense of humor. Thank you for being my wife.”

Liz smiled and answered, “You’re welcome.”

I was beginning to get the picture. I had some thank-yous of my own and was getting heady with the whole idea, but I decided to watch and listen a bit longer.

“Thank you for taking care of me when I had such a bad case of flu last winter, Rose. I know how terribly unpleasant that must have been for you, and you were so kind to put your own life aside for a few days to stay with me.” Gina’s eyes were damp when she looked at her daughter. “You were such a comfort.” Then she turned to her son- in-law. “Thank you too, Karl, for fending for yourself and the kids while she was taking care of me.”

“You’re welcome.” “You’re welcome.”

Then Rose stood up and walked over to where her husband was sitting. She bent down and gave him a kiss. “Thank you, honey, for working so hard and supporting us and giving me the opportunity to be the stay at home mom I’d always hoped I could be.”

Chuck thanked his friend Bob for all the wonderful tomatoes and other produce Bob gave him during harvest time. He also thanked Jerry and Judy for teaching him how to make the world’s greatest apple sauce.

Jean thanked Patty for listening when she needed a sympathetic ear.

Juan thanked his grandmother for the loan and told her he had put the money to good use. Sonja thanked her neighbor, Dorene, for the wonderful homemade mayonnaise and other goodies. And on it went.

I was thinking about all the wonderful people I wanted to thank. I guess I was drifting off in some sort of a trance when I heard the next person mention my name.

“Thank you, Marilyn,” she said. “You helped my daughter and son-in-law through some rough spots in their marriage.”

I waved my hand in a never mind gesture. “I was just doing my job.”

Ron nearly knocked over his water glass as he stood to interrupt me.

“No, no, no. That’s not allowed.” He shook his pointer at me. “These are the rules. You only get to say ‘you’re welcome’. If you explain it away you discredit the message and invalidate the sincerity of the person saying thanks. You just got a sincere ‘thank you’, Marilyn. Now, say ‘you’re welcome’.” He sat down and fiddled with his napkin.

“Oops. I’m sorry. I mean…” I looked at the woman who’d thanked me and said, “You’re welcome.” Then I smiled at my host and hostess.

“And thank you, Ron and Liz, for inviting me to share in such a beautiful tradition.”

Ron grinned. “You’re welcome.” Liz nodded, “You’re welcome.”

It took a full thirty minutes to get around the table and all the thanks-givings. When we finished Liz excused herself to put the finishing touches on the food and Ron poured the wine.

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Dale McGowan is the author of Parenting Beyond Belief, Raising Freethinkers, and Atheism for Dummies. He holds a BA in evolutionary anthropology and a PhD in music.