When I was a child I don't think I really "got" Thanksgiving.
Sure, we gathered around my grandparents table and used the fancy dishes. We said grace and ate a glorious meal.
But I didn't get it.
I knew the story of the first Thanksgiving (the version we were told at school anyway), but the meaning was lost on me.
Because grace was just a prayer we said before meals.
It was a memorized and recited, not felt or understood.
I was glad to gather and eat my grandma's cooking, but that was as deep as my gratitude ran.
And then one year – as an adult – I got it.
I really got it.
I'm not sure when Thanksgiving clicked for me, but now I count it among my favorite of the year.
Because it's all about gratitude.
("Well, duh," you say. But truly. It didn't sink in until adulthood.)
It's counting blessings. Being thankful for the abundance that we possess.
It's about deeply feeling and noticing all that we have.
And as you might guess, I'm all about that.
And now I look forward to Thanksgiving like I once looked forward to Christmas.
Several years ago we started a Gratitude Tree tradition.
It quickly became our favorite Thanksgiving tradition, and one that really brought home the meaning of Thanksgiving for our kids. And come to think of it, for the adults as well.
The Gratitude Tree is a place to note all that you are thankful for.
A way to count your blessings and be mindful of all the richness in your life.
Quite simply it's a tree branch decorated with leaves upon which you've written what you're thankful for.
But it always seems like more than that.
So much more that my mom sometimes keeps the tree from the previous year on her dresser until the following autumn.
Because these blessings are worth remembering throughout the year.
Want to start your own Gratitude Tree tradition?
I thought so.
But keep it simple, won't you? We get so carried away trying to make our traditions picture-perfect to the end of losing our way and forgetting why we're doing it to begin with.
Don't let perfection stand in your way.
- One branch (or bundle of smaller branches) small enough to fit in your jar or vase
- Mason jar or sturdy vase
- Marbles or stones (optional) to stabilize vase
- Paper (colored paper or old water color paintings are nice but not necessary)
- Paper punch or something pokey to work a hole through your paper
- Yarn or string
- Pencils or pens
Create your "tree"
Cut your branches.
My kids go out each year with clippers and select our branch. It isn't always the most perfect specimen, but I love the role they play in selecting it. If you want a stunning branch, select one on a hike well before the hustle of Thanksgiving.
Feeling fancy? Coat that baby with silver or white sparkly spray paint. Yowza.
Trim the branch so that it isn't obnoxiously tall or wide on your table. You're making a centerpiece – not a brush pile, my friend.
Place the branch in a jar or base. Add pebbles or marbles (optional) to give it a more stable base.
If you have young children and visions of broken vase and bits of tree branch wedged into your turkey, consider a smaller centerpiece. Or as an alternative you can suspend a single branch horizontally above the table. Gorgeous.
Make your leaves
From your old watercolor paintings (or colored paper, or old telephone bills or whatever you've got) cut out leaf shapes. I free form cut simple almond shapes with a little stem, but you can use these templates if you want something more refined.
Punch a hole near the leaf end of your leaves and thread some scrap yarn or string through. Knot.
Arrange your table
Place your tree on your Thanksgiving table.
Surround the tree with scattered leaves and pencils. (Glitter pens would be lovely, but we eat Thanksgiving on Great-Grandma's handmade lace tablecloth. So pencil it is.)
We put our gratitude tree on the table before the guests arrive. Then throughout the evening we all write down anything that we're inspired to share.
Even my dad – not famous for pouring his heart out through the pen – gets into the act.
Share your blessings
After dinner we remove the leaves from the Gratitude Tree and place them in a basket. Then as we gather for dessert or a glass of wine, we pass the basket around the room, taking turns reading the anonymous blessings that were shared.
It's a magical time – sometimes resulting in tears – as we find the words to express all that we are thankful for.
Want more? Five Family Projects to Cultivate Gratitude might be just the ticket. (A post I wrote for Simple Homeschool last year.)
How does your family make Thanksgiving (or a similar holiday in your culture) more meaningful?