Food & Drink » Glenda Bartosh on Food

Which way to a state of gratitude?

Mapping out Thanksgiving



We have so much. So very, very much.

So much food — good food, clean food. Food from a million and one sources all over the world brought to our doorsteps, or at least our grocery store shelves, with very little effort on our part. Food for the most part free from germs and bacteria and the travails of hunting and killing, or hoeing and tilling. Food for our delight and, if not our delight, at least our good nutrition.

So much good nutrition. Over-nutrition. So much good health. And good shelter. Roofs over our heads, providing coolness and shade when we're too hot, and warmth when we're cold. Plus so many hats and shirts and jackets and wooly socks doing the same.

We have so many toys, so much stuff for fun. Games, computers, iSomethings. Dirt bikes. Mountain bikes. Skis, boards, skates. And so many places to go and so many ways to get there. Our own cars and trucks and motorcycles — several in a family, sometimes. Cruise ships like small cities, and comfortable trains and buses and planes. Endless forms of transportation capable of whisking us anywhere in a blink, bringing family and friends together across thousands of kilometres, all for the price of a ticket that most, for the most part, can afford.

So much, so very much goodness inhabits our lives, and yet it seems we have so little time and even less inclination to be grateful when here we are, living in a world of luxury beyond that which kings and queens of medieval Europe took to be theirs.

In its simplest and most primary definition, "gratitude," by the Oxford English dictionary, means the quality or condition of being thankful. It comes from the Latin gratia, meaning "favour" and gratus meaning "pleasing." "Gratuity", "gratefulness" and all the other words we have that stem from this Latin root have to do with "kindness, generousness, gifts, the beauty of giving and receiving, or getting something for nothing..." writes Paul W. Pruyser in The Minister as Diagnostician.

But it's that first, more fundamental state of being thankful that I have in mind as we approach Thanksgiving.

Margaret Visser, brilliant essayist that she is, put out a fascinating book a few years back on the topic — The Gift of Thanks: The Roots, Persistence and Paradoxical Meaning of a Social Ritual. In it she unpacks the many threads entangled with gratitude in Western culture, including the way in which we "bring up" our children to express gratitude as well as how we expect it returned.

I was curious to read that in a blind study of middle class children and their families, mothers were much more polite than fathers, spontaneously saying "thank you" 50 per cent of the time during periods of play when the whole family was being observed, as opposed to fathers saying it only 18 per cent of the time. Perhaps this accounts in part for the absence of an overall sense of gratitude in our still patriarchal culture.

Another part may be due to the great anonymity and the equally great distance between us, the recipients, and the sources of our "muchness" in this consumptive world we've made for ourselves, since gratitude is hooked into the idea of "recognition" — recognizing someone or something for that which has been received.

In French, writes Visser, "gratitude" is reconnaissance, which also means "recognition" — so French is one of the rare languages that honours in the etymology of their word for "gratitude" the deep relationship between the two.

We thank the clerk at the cash register for her service of taking our transaction, not for the thing itself. It would feel silly to nod a thank you in the general direction of the store shelf each time we grab our box of cookies or bunch of bananas. Sillier still to leave an offering. So who, exactly, or what do we thank, and how?

Then we have the general absence of God from our post-post-modern world, which also leaves us marooned outside of gratitude and in a fog of gracelessness.

Visser, in her discussion on the frame of mind of gratitude, tells us that, for one, Julian (or Juliana) of Norwich, a 14th century Christian mystic, knew that God himself "takes as great pleasure and delight as if he were indebted to us for all the good we do. And yet it is he who actually does it."

So it was God who, ultimately, did the good, and was traditionally recognized and thanked for it. Now, with godliness in any form for the most missing in action, we are left to wonder how to find our way to a state of gratitude.

I was equally curious to see that in Visser's book Thanksgiving, as we know it, is also largely absent from the 400-plus pages. It is not included in the index, and accounts for a single paragraph under the topic of "votive offerings."

The custom of making votive offerings — objects, often small replicas of humans or animals, intended to be left in a sacred place for religious purposes — to the gods likely begin in the Upper Paleolithic era, before 9000 BCE. Then about seven thousand or so years ago, when the agricultural revolution unfolded in the Middle East and we humans started to produce food for ourselves rather than hunting animals down or gathering up wild vegetation, people started deliberately setting aside some of the crops they had raised — "first-fruits" they were called — and taking them to temples as offerings.

Greeks called first-fruits aparchai — "beginnings" — and extended the idea to the beginning of their meals, offering bits of meat and pouring wine for the gods as a sign of respect and mindfulness. We started saying grace before we tucked into dinner. Since nature and the gods "gave their gifts," people gave back something to ensure they continued.

Thanksgiving at harvest time is still a widespread custom, although these days, other than a few symbolic decorations — the mini-pumpkins, the cardboard turkey window decorations — it's relatively divorced from fields and harvest. Instead, it's become framed as the Thanksgiving long weekend, as in a bigger than usual break from work, allowing time to get together. Many of those travel tickets mentioned earlier will be purchased so that family and friends can savour good food and each other's company.

I won't need a ticket, but I'll be up north with my husband's family enjoying as much, wondering how many of us will find a state of gratitude, and how.

Glenda Bartosh is an award-winning journalist who prefers the dark meat.

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