Some years ago a top national scholarship organization in America commissioned a survey to determine what its winners had in common. To the sponsors' surprise, the survey found only one common bond:

A strikingly high number of the successful students came from families that ate dinner together.

That may sound too Norman Rockwell for today's genetically minded behavioral scientists. But there's much evidence - both survey and anecdotal - to back that finding.

And no wonder. One of the most important functions of that bedrock human institution, the family, is the discussion and absorption of knowledge about life and its goals. The home dinner table is, unselfconsciously, a principal forum for exchanging information about, and understanding, the reality of life.

It is also a haven around which to practice interpersonal relations. And such relations later form the backbone of all the team efforts by which society, business, nations, and the human race progress.

The Thanksgiving holiday has become a kind of alumni reunion for this dinner-table educational institution. In America, Canada, and a growing number of venues worldwide it provides a pause in the year in which a further, very basic element - gratitude - becomes part of our understanding of life.

Without gratitude, life and its purpose are not fully grasped. The richness of experience given individual men and women by their creator is not completely understood if appreciation is missing. The very word appreciation means both thanks-giving and understanding.

This newspaper first appeared at Thanksgiving time 89 years ago. Commemoration of the meaning of Thanksgiving has therefore had a special place in its history. The paper's founder, Mary Baker Eddy, wrote earlier: "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." (There it is again - the view that learners start their success in the home.)

In today's world, it's easy to criticize some of the ritual that has grown around this American holiday derived from a very modest 17th-century harvest feast between English settlers and Wampanoag Indians. Most media coverage doesn't help. It tends to neglect gratitude and emphasize an endless stream of recipes, airport and highway travel jams, and tips for dealing with overeating and loneliness.

The latter subject does deserve attention. And not just because of traditional concern to include the homeless and visitors from afar at the table, but also because so many families today are fragmented.

The Monitor's founder once wrote a short narrative essay about Thanksgiving dinner. In the midst of its description of four generations of family joy and warmth, she added words about just such fragmented families and lonely individuals: "for the tear-filled eyes looking longingly at the portal through which the loved one comes not, or gazing silently on the vacant seat at fireside and board - God comfort them all!..."

Deep-felt thanksgiving provides such comfort to all who give thanks.

* Adapted from a 1995 Monitor Thanksgiving editorial.

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