A Naturalist Pagan Approach to Gratitude

Supposedly Thanksgiving is about gratitude, a rather pagan-friendly appreciation of the harvest that will help us get through the hard winter ahead. In my experience, it’s primarily been a time to get together with family and/or friends, eat lots of food (and for some people get tipsy or drunk on whatever booze is available), and not have to go to work. Other than a prayer before the meal, I’ve observed very little overt gratitude being given amid the festivities. It’s not that I don’t appreciate the value of time with good people and plenty to eat, and I definitely disapprove of the growing trend of nonessential personnel having to work on Thanksgiving proper. But the original meaning of the holiday seems to have been rather lost in practice.

Perhaps this is in part because deliberate harvest festivals have been a part of my spirituality for the better part of two decades. Because I came to paganism after being raised Catholic, and I didn’t have a coven or other group to indoctrinate me formally with a predetermined set of spiritual parameters, I had to really consider what beliefs and practices I was adhering to and why. So I learned about the three harvest Sabbats–Lammas, Fall Equinox, and Samhain–and their historical counterparts in various European cultures. As I spent more time gardening, I was able to put theoretical practices to the test, exercising a new layer of gratitude as I watched seeds I planted sprout, grow, and come to fruition. The older I got and the more my path developed, the less I took my spirituality for granted.

These days, gratitude is deeply ingrained in my path because I know too much now to sustain ignorance. My roots are firmly embedded in urban sustainability and environmental awareness, and so I am acutely aware of where my food comes from and the cost it exacts on the land. “Harvest” isn’t just something to be celebrated in autumn; I’m able to get all sorts of food year-round, and that means there’s a harvest going on somewhere every day. As much as I try to stay local and seasonal, it’s not always within my budget (financial or temporal), and so I sometimes find myself buying out of season produce flown in from far away and processed foods whose ingredients were harvested weeks ago, moreso in the winter.

This means that each meal is infused with awareness and appreciation for the origins of each of the ingredients, whether I grew them myself or not. I can’t help but be grateful to those who made sure I was able to eat, whether that’s the animals, plants and fungi that died (or were at least trimmed back) to feed me, or the people who took care of them throughout their lives, or those who harvested and prepared them. I also have gratitude for the land that supported the food as it grew, particularly those places where chemical pesticides, fertilizers and other “enhancements” have destroyed the health of the soil. And I think, too, of the air, water, and land polluted by the fossil fuels used to grow, process and transport the food to me, and the other wastes that result from the sometimes convoluted path from farm to table.

All of this is summed up in a short prayer I’ve said before meals–quietly or out loud–for many years:

Thank you to all those who have given of themselves to feed me, whether directly or indirectly.
May I learn to be as generous as you.

Notice there’s two parts to that prayer–the acknowledgement of what others have given to me, and a hope that I can be as giving myself. Considering how much some beings sacrifice in order for me to eat, it’s impossible for me to give back exactly as much, at least until I die and my body is buried in the ground to be recycled into nutrients for others. But I can try to give back through more sustainable food choices, and attending to the tiny patch of land in my community garden, and donating food to charity. I can support efforts to gain better rights and working conditions for the migrant workers who pick the produce I eat and the underpaid employees of food processing plants. I can work to educate others about the problems inherent in our food systems and what we can do about them. All these are a far cry from being as generous as a being that died to feed me, but they’re a start.

My gratitude drives me to do what I can each day, not only to appreciate what I’m given but to care for those who have given it to me. The more I know about where my food comes from, the more driven I am to be a responsible part of this unimaginably large network of supply and demand, resource and consumption. Being grateful isn’t just about taking things with a “Yes, thank you”. It’s also the desire to give back, to demonstrate appreciation. The prayer at the beginning of the meal is only the barest glimmer of that urge, and it means little if it’s not followed up by action.

And so this Thanksgiving, as I am surrounded by others and as we prepare to eat turkey and stuffing and green beans and the canned cranberry sauce that retains its cylindrical shape all by itself, it’ll just be another day in which I am grateful and in which I try to enact as well as voice that gratitude. It’s also a good day to renew my commitment to that thankfulness and all it entails, in thought and deed alike. I may never achieve perfection; there are always more thanks to be given. But let this time of year be the rejuvenation of my efforts nonetheless.

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