Thanksgiving is, quite literally, a holiday built upon the notion of giving thanks. If at no other time of the year, it's the one day when we come together with loved ones to express gratitude at the dinner table. Before digging into the turkey feast, we honor the time-old tradition of counting our blessings.
But the ritual of saying grace before a meal far predates its modern context. In fact, expressing gratitude before you eat is one of the most universal behaviors, according to Adrian Butash, author of Bless Your Food: Ancient and Contemporary Graces from Around the World. It's also an ancient one.
According to theologist Laurel Schneider, historically -- in a time before the pasteurization and refrigeration of food -- blessings were a way of "purifying" the food. They were also an expression of gratitude to various gods and a recognition that the food "is not ours to begin with, but loaned to us," Schneider told Spirituality & Health magazine.
People have given thanks for food since Pagan times, Butash tells The Huffington Post. There is evidence of mealtime prayers as far back as 2,500 BC in the ancient Hindu food blessings found in the early Vedic text The Mahabharata, and, even further back, food was a common trope in early Paleolithic art, according to Butash.
"Food is a necessity for life, and centuries ago ... if you were starving and got something to eat, you were mighty thankful," Butash says. "Today, we don't think about it that much, but when you think of food as life and death, then you can see how serious it became in the consciousness of the people."
But as much as food is a necessity, it's also a ritual. "Food is so important individually to each of us -- both the sustenance and the symbolic meaning," says Butash.
Today, 44 percent of Americans regularly say grace, while 46 percent report almost never saying it. On Thanksgiving, of course, that percentage is much higher.
Whether every night at the dinner table or just on Turkey Day, the practice of saying grace connects us to the food we eat, the people we share it with and the world that has supported and nurtured us with nourishment.
Here's what you should know about saying grace.
Pairing gratitude with a meal can make it even more powerful.
Often, practicing gratitude isn't an activity that we make time for. Sometimes it can even feel like a chore. But by pairing a brief gratitude exercise with an activity that we enjoy and make time for each day (like eating) can help us to make gratitude a more regular part of our lives.
This is rooted in psychology. The Premack Principle of human behavior suggests that when we pair a less desirable activity (in this case, giving thanks) with a more desirable activity (eating), we'll start to derive more enjoyment out of the less desirable activity and be more likely to perform it again. As writer Matt McMinn notes in an article on the Christian blog The Table, pairing a gratitude exercise with the enjoyable and highly reinforcing activity of eating leads us to associate giving thanks with the pleasure we derive from food.
Of course, we don't want to look at giving thanks as an "undesirable" activity -- but a little incentive to practice gratitude doesn't hurt!
Taking time for gratitude, just once a day, makes us happy and healthy.
Giving thanks just once a day -- maybe at the dinner table, or maybe before bed -- for a couple weeks can improve physical and psychological well-being.
Gratitude's value is intrinsic, but its health benefits are also many. Those who take time to be grateful may enjoy improved sleep, lower stress levels, enhanced overall well-being and even improved heart health.
Saying grace transcends religious and cultural boundaries.
The ritual of blessing food has a long history in almost every culture and faith, says Butash. Some thank God, while others express thanks for the plant and animal life that was sacrificed for the meal. Even in religious contexts, grace isn't always about thanking God -- "It's about rejoicing about what you have," says Butash.
In Buddhism, the traditional mealtime prayer acknowledges the beings that have sacrificed their lives to put food on the table. "This food is the gift of the whole universe," the prayer reads. "Each morsel is a sacrifice of life, may I be worthy to receive it." In some parts of Latin America, on the other hand, a traditional mealtime prayer reads: "To those who have hunger, give bread. And to those who have bread, give the hunger for justice."
The Japanese have a tradition of saying itadakimasu before meals, meaning "I humbly receive." The expression is an acknowledgement of the life that was given so that the meal could be enjoyed, National Geographic writer Maryn McKenna recently pointed out.
"Every culture has worshipped food and has prayed to it before eating it," says Butash. "Almost by itself it has become completely revered."
Saying grace connects us with something beyond ourselves.
For some, saying grace is a spiritual tradition that offers a connection to a higher power or divine presence. But even in a secular context, offering thanks can give us a sense of connection to other people and to our environment. Taking a moment to be grateful for the food we're about to eat is a reminder for us to respect and appreciate those who played a part in bringing that nourishment to the table.
"For a minute, our stations are tuned to a broader, richer radius," author Anne Lamott wrote in a Parade essay last year. "We're acknowledging that this food didn't just magically appear: Someone grew it, ground it, bought it, baked it."
Grace is also a moment of pause "before the shoveling begins," she writes, a little encouragement not to rush through a meal, but instead to eat mindfully and to relish the moments we have with loved ones.
"We savor these moments out of time, when we are conscious of love's presence," writes Lamott. "That is grace."