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Thanksgiving

November 25, 1998



In this 90th anniversary issue, you would have to work hard not to notice that the Monitor was launched the day before America's Thanksgiving holiday.

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That heritage has led, no surprise, to annual thoughts about the role of thanks-giving for a family and a civilization.

Last year we noted that a survey by a top national scholarship organization found its young winners had only one thing in common: A remarkable percentage of them came from families that ate dinner together.

Last month former US secretary of health, education, and welfare Joseph Califano Jr. added a negative virtue to the dinner table phenomenon. He reported that a national survey showed 12-to-17-year-olds who eat more meals with parents are less likely to smoke, drink, or use pot than those who don't dine together.

Score two for the family table!

Neither survey parsed menus. Conversational topics were not scientifically sampled. Leave-it-to- Beaverism is unlikely to exist in most of today's families.

But what does seem logical is that the dinner ritual provides a forum for kids to absorb information about, and understand the reality of, life and its goals. Admired role models in a community (and their opposite) are discussed in unselfconscious detail. Children learn to cooperate and compete, to express their ideas in convincing form. Those skills become the core of later careers - and the building blocks for communities, businesses, nations. They also imprint an unwritten textbook for the eventual teaching of the next generations' families.

The Thanksgiving holiday has become a kind of alumni reunion for this dinner-table educational institution that provides so much structure for society. The holiday welcomes back graduated children, other relatives, and strangers far from their own homes. It enfolds individuals without families. And it enlists Samaritans to serve the homeless.

At its best, the annual holiday supplies a basic element not often present in an implacably rushed daily meal - gratitude.

Without such gratitude, life and its purpose are not fully grasped.

In this 90th anniversary issue, we survey the dizzying gains (and grim lapses) of the 20th century. Among the gains: the high velocity spread of knowledge, innovation, freedom, and prosperity.

Logically, the pursuit of happiness should follow. But what about happiness itself - a full sense of accomplishment, fulfillment, purpose.

What applies to family and neighborhood also applies to global society. Freedom, knowledge, and prosperity gain real meaning when we reflect on their source and the hard work it took to gain them. Such reflection takes on lasting substance when viewed through the lens of gratitude.

Without that deeper perspective, freedom is in danger of becoming license, knowledge of becoming hubris, innovation of breeding peril as well as progress, and prosperity of being undermined by greed and apathy.

The Monitor's international edition reaches subscribers in more than 100 countries. There is, of course, no national monopoly on thanks-giving. Canada, Japan, Hungary, Switzerland, Italy, Poland, and others celebrate formal days of thanks.

Ancient religions enshrine holidays of gratitude, often connected to harvest season. Among them: the Jewish Sukkot, Hindu Sankranthi, Tao Eighth Month, Sikh Vaisakhi, and Shinto Aki Matsuri. Native Americans gave gratitude for the bounty of nature long before the Wampanoags joined that little band of 17th century English settlers for the modest harvest feast that became the prototype for America's national holiday.

That American family day is sometimes subject to parody for its travel jams and stuffing mania (of birds and humans). But at its core it remains the great melting pot holiday, celebrated by grateful families and individuals of all religions and backgrounds. It has, moreover, remained in step with the times. Innovation and affluence have changed its scale, not its meaning.

The founder of the Monitor, Mary Baker Eddy once wrote of such change: "The dark days of our forefathers and their implorations for peace and plenty have passed, and are succeeded by our time of abundance, even the full beneficence of the laws of the universe which man's diligence has utilized. Institutions of learning and progressive religion light their fires in every home."

Those "institutions of learning" have left their mark in the striking progress the world has seen in this century. But, to avoid repeating the century's mistakes, more spiritual depth is needed. That's what families should aspire to gain as they gather around the table this week.