Americans love Thanksgiving, and it’s not hard to understand why. As a holiday, it comes straight out of our own history, a history of which at least some of us are still proud. As a religious observance, it reflects the belief in God that the majority of us still claim to have. For most, it means a day off from work or school, wall-to-wall food and football, a good nap, and the traditional start of the Christmas shopping season. What’s not to love?
But I think our American love of Thanksgiving goes beyond all of those things. The quintessential Thanksgiving image of extended friends and family gathered around a beautifully set table represents something that too many of us no longer experience with any sort of regularity, yet still deeply crave.
Here are five things we can learn from the Thanksgiving holiday we just celebrated about how to live better all year long.
1. Meals Are Meant to Be Shared
For many Americans the shared meal has become a rarity. We’re just all too busy, with our packed schedules and personal itineraries, to make time for it.
But if your family is anything like mine, Thanksgiving is a different story. Instead of something we have to squeeze in before we run out to the next activity, the meal itself becomes the thing, commanding our attention for the entire day. We eat, talk, and eat some more, and we don’t hurry it.
That sort of leisurely pace is not something we can do all the time. But we can learn from Thanksgiving the value of breaking bread with those we love. Eating is one of our most basic human needs. Sharing that need is a way of sharing ourselves. If you don’t do that except on special occasions, it’s time to bring it back.
2. Cooking Is Not Just About the Food
I don’t particularly like to cook. It’s something I keep working on.
But Thanksgiving is a reminder that cooking is not just about caloric intake. It’s about preserving our heritage by sharing with our children the recipes we learned from our parents and grandparents—the ones that aren’t written down but are only in our head. It’s about teaching and learning as we work towards a shared goal. It’s about spending time together.
If it’s been a while since you did any real cooking, maybe it’s time to pull the recipe books off the shelf, pull your loved ones into the kitchen, and make some memories.
3. Pretty Things Are Meant to Be Used
When I was growing up, Thanksgiving meant using the good china. It’s a practice I have continued with my own family. But the older I get, the more I think the good dishes need to come out more often than once or twice a year. How many more Thanksgivings am I likely to have, anyway? Don’t I want to enjoy my dishes a few more times than that?
You may not have fine china. But you have something special tucked away in a drawer that needs to be brought out more than once a year. Make your world more beautiful. Use the nice things.
4. True Face Time Is Electronics-Free
I love my devices and social media as much as the next person. But Thanksgiving reminds us that true community comes in the flesh, not on a screen. As you look ahead to a new year, consider cutting the amount of technology in your life.
One way to do so is to have a Thanksgiving-style meal at least once a week, not so much in the menu but in the intentional spending of time together. Instead of leaving the table as soon as everyone has eaten, stick around for conversation and cleanup. Then instead of everyone retiring to their respective corners of the World Wide Web, head outside for a walk.
When you get back, play a family game. Fight the suck of the LCD screen for as long as possible.
5. All Good Gifts Come from God
Somewhere along the way this country that loves Thanksgiving so much forgot what Thanksgiving is all about. While almost 9 out of 10 of us claim to believe in God, barely half of us prayed before our Thanksgiving meal. Only a few more than that are in the habit of praying other days of the year.
If you are in that number, consider making a change this year. Prayer doesn’t have to be hard. It’s doesn’t have to be extemporaneous to be sincere. In the gospels of Matthew and Luke, Jesus himself taught us how we should pray. Say the Lord’s Prayer together, or read a psalm. German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer called the Book of Psalms the prayer book of the Bible, wherein “repeating God’s own words after him, we begin to pray to him.”
One of my all-time favorite movies is “Babette’s Feast,” based on a story by Isak Dinesen. The pinnacle of the movie is a beautiful and sumptuous meal that represents deeper truths about love, thankfulness and sacrifice. Thanksgiving is a similar reminder of what truly matters in life. Let’s not leave the lessons of Thanksgiving behind to be tossed out with the turkey carcass, but take them with us to enrich the year to come.