The Turkey Hostage Situation

Rethinking the table ritual of giving thanks


The holiday season is officially underway.

Thanksgiving (in the United States at least!) is next Thursday. Since writing Grateful, people often reach out, asking me for suggestions regarding table rituals and thanksgiving prayers. This year is no different! My email has been busy in recent days.

Honestly, I dislike the Thanksgiving ritual of each guest at the table saying something for which they are thankful. In Grateful, I called this a “turkey hostage situation.” No food until everyone comes up with a gratitude. Depending on the size of your family or the number of friends you’ve invited, it can try one’s patience as the feast grows cold.

But it isn’t just impatience that bugs me. The typical ritual is framed with a question: “What are you grateful for?” While the sentiment is noble — to turn everyone’s mind toward the many gifts of the year — it isn’t always helpful to say "I'm grateful FOR..." Notice what happens. We express gratitude about material things, successes, and whatever we consider to be blessings. In effect, when we use the word “for,” we turn thankfulness into a commodity — we are grateful for the stuff of our lives.

Certainly, we can and should be grateful for life’s material blessings. But gratitude is more than the preposition for. Other prepositions open our imagination to see and experience gratefulness as something deeper than appreciation for things.

The pandemic, with all its loss and suffering, and the continued division in our social lives, families, and politics, has made giving thanks more difficult. Perhaps this Thanksgiving is a good time to ask some different questions regarding gratitude:

To whom or what are you grateful?
What challenges have you been grateful through?
Have you been grateful with others?
Where have you discovered gratitude
Has something in your life been changed by being grateful?
what circumstances have you experienced thankfulness?

As a table liturgy, you might write out prepositions on cards — for, to, through, with, within, by, in — and put them at each plate. When you go around the table, have people share their gratitudes using these prompts. Alternately, you might ask people to write a for, to, through, with, within, by, or in gratitude on a card before the meal (so they think about it in advance) to be read around the table.

This may or may not work for your Thanksgiving dinner celebration. It could work with a church, prayer, or book group. And it certainly is a rich spiritual practice for your own life during this season of thanks. Perhaps take a preposition each day for the next seven days and reflect on them in turn — you can prepare for Thanksgiving by giving thanks each day with seven different angles on gratitude.

For those of you who find this holiday trying or even dread-filled, you may find that a week of intentional gratitudes could soften your own heart to experience the day with a deeper sense of attentiveness and serenity.

Prepositions matter. Especially when it comes to gratitude.

Have a practice to share? A comment or idea for the Cottage community?

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TOMORROW! FRIDAY, November 19, 1:30 - 2:30 PM eastern

A Live Event with The Trinity Forum
Practicing Gratitude – an Online Conversation

From the Invitation:
“This Thanksgiving season as we collectively and individually seek to renew a practice of gratitude, we invite you to join the Trinity Forum on November 19th for an Online Conversation with Diana Butler Bass to explore the transformative, subversive power of gratitude for our personal lives and communities. Through her book, Grateful, Diana Butler Bass untangles our conflicting cultural understandings of gratitude and sets the table for a renewed practice of giving thanks.”
CLICK HERE to register (you can also listen to the recorded conversation later).

PODCAST (available now)

HOW GOD WORKS with David DeSteno, Professor of Psychology at Northeastern University
Gratitude: Why Every Day Should Be Thanksgiving

From the show notes: “Most people think gratitude is an emotion about the past. But in reality, it’s all about the future. Science shows it makes people more honest, more generous, and more patient. It strengthens their relationships and improves their well being. You can think of it as a multivitamin for the soul. But, like a vitamin, you need it more than once a year to get the benefits. And that’s why many religions provide ways to embrace it daily. Join Dave and his guests, author Diana Butler Bass and Rabbi Geoffrey Mitelman, as they explore ways to make everyday feel more like Thanksgiving.”

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A Thanksgiving Prayer

by Diana Butler Bass

God, there are days we do not feel grateful. When we are anxious or angry. When we feel alone. When we do not understand what is happening in the world or with our neighbors. When the news is bleak, confusing. God, we struggle to feel grateful.

But this Thanksgiving, we choose gratitude.

We choose to accept life as a gift from you, and as a gift from the unfolding work of all creation.

We choose to be grateful for the earth from which our food comes; for the water that gives life; and for the air we all breathe.

We choose to thank our ancestors, those who came before us, grateful for their stories and struggles, and we receive their wisdom as a continuing gift for today.

We choose to see our families and friends with new eyes, appreciating and accepting them for who they are. We are thankful for our homes, whether humble or grand.

We will be grateful for our neighbors, no matter how they voted, whatever our differences, or how much we feel hurt or misunderstood by them.

We choose to see the whole planet as our shared commons, the stage of the future of humankind and creation.

God, this Thanksgiving, we do not give thanks. We choose it. We will make this choice of thanks with courageous hearts, knowing that it is humbling to say “thank you.” We choose to see your sacred generosity, aware that we live in an infinite circle of gratitude. That we all are guests at a hospitable table around which gifts are passed and received. We will not let anything opposed to love take over this table. Instead, we choose grace, free and unmerited love, the giftedness of life everywhere. In this choosing, and in the making, we will pass gratitude onto the world.

Thus, with you, and with all those gathered at this table, we pledge to make thanks. We ask you to strengthen us in this resolve. Here, now, and into the future. Around our family table. Around the table of our nation. Around the table of the earth.

We choose thanks.


* * * * * * *

Prayer for the Great Family

by Gary Snyder

Gratitude to Mother Earth, sailing through night and day—
and to her soil: rich, rare and sweet
in our minds so be it.

Gratitude to Plants, the sun-facing, light-changing leaf
and fine root-hairs; standing still through wind
and rain; their dance is in the flowering spiral grain
in our minds so be it.

Gratitude to Air, bearing the soaring Swift and silent
Owl at dawn. Breath of our song
clear spirit breeze
in our minds so be it.

Gratitude to Wild Beings, our brothers, teaching secrets,
freedoms, and ways; who share with us their milk;
self-complete, brave and aware
in our minds so be it.

Gratitude to Water: clouds, lakes, rivers, glaciers;
holding or releasing; streaming through all
our bodies salty seas
in our minds so be it.

Gratitude to the Sun: blinding pulsing light through
trunks of trees, through mists, warming caves where
bears and snakes sleep— he who wakes us—
in our minds so be it.

Gratitude to the Great Sky
who holds billions of stars— and goes yet beyond that—
beyond all powers, and thoughts
and yet is within us—
Grandfather Space.
The Mind is his Wife.
so be it.


Travel safely, everyone.

Get a booster if you are eligible. It isn’t too late to get vaccinated if you’ve hesitated. Wear masks to protect yourself and others on airplanes, at hotels, and in other public spaces.

Most of all, hold and hug those you love. We are still here, even though we’ve lost much in the last twenty months. Life is truly the most precious gift.

A blessed Thanksgiving to all.

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