In the list of modern sins, “ingratitude” would hardly make the A-list. But for Shakespeare, it was one of the worst offenses against man and nature, violating a covenant that held society together in a subtle weave, as the lines from “King Lear” make clear:
...thou better know’st
The offices of nature, bond of childhood,
Effects of courtesy, dues of gratitude;
As we head into the holiday season, gratitude underlies the purpose of Thanksgiving and the religious rites of December.
“Gratitude” comes from the Latin “gratus”: It is the proper recognition of and humility toward not only of what we have but what we have been given. As the medieval mystic Meister Eckhart wrote, “If the only prayer you said in your whole life was, ‘Thank you,’ that would suffice.” For all the commercial bustle of the days ahead, gratitude is the North Star we can still look to.
In fact, studies have shown an attitude of gratitude has been linked to an easing of anxiety and depression and fosters better health. Those are the practical benefits for those in a “show-me” state of mind, but there is something to be said on behalf of gratitude for its own sake.
The first Thanksgiving in 1621 is wrapped in myth, but we know Edward Winslow wrote from Plymouth Colony to a friend in December 1621: (spelling modernized): “Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after a more special manner rejoice together, after we had gathered the fruit of our labors; they four in one day killed as much fowl as, with a little help beside, served the company almost a week, at which time, among other recreations, we exercised our arms, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and among the rest their greatest King Massasoit, with some 90 men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted and they went out and killed five deer, which they brought to the plantation and bestowed on our governor, and upon the captain and others.”
We don’t know if shared feasts like this were a one-time thing or a regular occurrence; for the Wampanoag Indians, it is said every day was a cause for thanksgiving.
We do know that barely half the 127 crew and passengers on the Mayflower survived the first winter. Yet, from the proverbial valley of the shadow of death, these people were still able to be give thanks.
It was in the darkest days of the American Civil War that President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed the third Thursday of November as Thanksgiving.
In our age of abundance, however diminished, these examples provide plenty of food for thought.
We wish you all, dear readers, Happy Thanksgiving.