Like most people who grow up in the United States, I learned from an early age to associate the end of November with Thanksgiving, a national holiday commemorating that harvest feast once shared between English pilgrims and Wampanoag natives. I can’t remember how many turkey “feathers” I made out of colored construction paper in elementary school over those years, or how many times we had to sing traditional songs for an all-school assembly before the holiday weekend began.
Mostly, I knew it as a time to gather around the dinner table for a leisurely meal with family and friends. In many ways, Thanksgiving was my favorite holiday. It was just such an exclamation point on home.
So it was quite disorienting when I found myself studying in another country some years later, and that special Thursday in November was just another workday for all the people around me. No change in the daily rhythm. No sense of a holiday whatsoever.
With family thousands of miles away, I felt keenly alone. But I was grateful I had developed a daily regimen of spiritual study, reading Bible lessons from the Christian Science Quarterly and praying with the ideas in them. And so I turned to a lesson specifically on Thanksgiving for some inspiration to comfort me.
What I got was a wake-up call! How had I missed the true essence of a holiday – a holy day – that went back not just a couple of hundred years but thousands? It reached way beyond a festive gathering with others and right into our individual relationship with God. I began to realize that wherever I was, I could always set aside in my own heart a day of thanksgiving with my divine Parent.
In the book of Psalms, giving thanks is so closely tied with expressions of praise and rejoicing – with a joyful sense of God’s goodness and grace as persistent in our lives. Sometimes that rejoicing goes on even in difficult circumstances. And I thought of Paul and his traveling companion, Silas – beaten and imprisoned for preaching good news about God’s love – singing psalms in the middle of the night. Even in that darkness, a profound thanksgiving of the heart was going on. By morning, the entire scene had shifted, and Paul and Silas were freed (see Acts 16:16-40). But it started with a joy that must have seemed completely out of place to the other prisoners around them.
“Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures” by Mary Baker Eddy asks: “Are we really grateful for the good already received? Then we shall avail ourselves of the blessings we have, and thus be fitted to receive more” (p. 3). This spoke to me. There was so much that I was enjoying and benefiting from through this program abroad. It was time to recognize and acknowledge that.
I felt a little humbled as I gained a deeper sense of connecting with people through the ages who have found true cause for rejoicing in all that God is and does. There was a continuity in giving thanks that had nothing to do with a special time of year or a certain place or particular culture. It was a timeless invitation to feel part of a genuine gratitude for good.
With a deeper appreciation that thanksgiving was going on right where I was, I buoyantly stepped into my regular activities for the day. What was unexpected was the lunch invitation I received from a local couple I’d met at the church I was attending. They had children about my age who were living far away. And there I was without family. We felt a divine hand had drawn us together. As I walked into the cozy restaurant to meet them, I was greeted with warmth and love.
“Happy Thanksgiving,” said the woman – fully knowing what that meant to me.
True thanksgiving starts within our own hearts, and spills over as a larger spiritual activity that embraces the world. It’s never confined to a single day and is found in every place with those who turn to God with joy.