When Americans sit down to Thanksgiving dinner Thursday, they will be observing a custom that is centuries old. Ancient Greeks, Romans, Chinese, and Egyptians gathered to give thanks to higher powers for the harvest, long before the Christian era. Americans turned an old story, of a feast involving Native Americans and newly arrived Pilgrim settlers, into an annual holiday dedicated to thankfulness. VOA's Ted Landphair talks with a mother and daughter who have literally written the book on giving thanks.
In the mid-1990s, Robyn Spizman began noticing that many Americans manage a quick word of thanks to God for their blessings on Thanksgiving Day, but have a tough time with simple thank-yous the rest of the year. So this Atlanta television personality who had already written several parenting and how-to books compiled hundreds of clever and meaningful ways to say thank you into a little volume called The Thank You Book.
Its chapters start with quotes from famous people like the Roman philospher Seneca.
"There is as much greatness of mind in acknowledging a good turn as in doing it."
. . . and the American transcendentalist thinker Ralph Waldo Emerson
"A day for toil, an hour for sport.
"But for a friend is life too short."
Some of the ideas in The Thank You Book are useful at the Thanksgiving table. "You could start a thank-you jar, and everyone in the family could add sentiments for next year, a little piece of paper on what they're thankful for and each year at the table, read what was written last year," says Robyn Spizman. "Talk about each person. You know, not everyone will be with us. If you are sitting there, blessed with your family, or you're blessed with the memory of a loved one, it's such a special time to remember those people who've made a difference in your life. It's not just about the food, while that comforts us and reminds us how blessed we are to have a beautiful dinner, it's also the love and kindness Grandma put into those chocolate-chip cookies. Or your Aunt Jeanie or an uncle or someone added to the meal. There's just nothing like it."
And this Thanksgiving at the Spizman house? "I'm very thankful for a family that taught me how to express love. And I think that's the key, that you didn't ever enter a room without kissing everybody hello and thanking everybody when you left -- never missed a moment to let someone else know how much you love 'em," she says. "And that's one thing I think a lot of people have regret about, is the words they didn't say or write."
Getting into the habit of saying "thank you" is not easy for everyone, Robyn Spizman points out. "But when you do it, when you try it, it's like adding three compliments to your day, you will be so surprised how much goodwill comes back at you. People start complimenting you on the good things you're doing. You get back what you give."
She remembers such a moment in her own family. "My husband - I was working really hard; this was years ago - and he just gave me a hug and said, 'Have I told you how great you are lately?' And the world just stopped. I looked up at him and thought, 'Wow, now that was a thank-you!' When somebody takes the time to let you know you matter, the truth is that we all long for that. We all want to feel like we make a difference, like our go-round in life is meaningful."
And handwritten thank-you notes, a dying gesture in the day of computer e-mail messages, are also treasured, Robyn Spizman says.
"You gotta be thankful for your eyes and ears and fingers and your hands,
"For your legs and for your arms and for the folks who understand,
"For your music and your books and your teachers and your school,
"And be thankful that you're warm and that you're cool.
"That's what Thanksgiving is." . . .
The importance of giving thanks is so ingrained in the Spizman household that, two years ago, Robyn Spizman's 14-year-old daughter Ali published her own book, The Thank You Book for Kids. One can almost hear adult Americans gasp at the thought of today's children saying "thanks." "When I walked into the mall one day, I went into the candy shop," she says. "And I bought everything, and the clerk just turned around and went on her way. And I said, 'thank you.' And, like, a light shone throughout the store, like, 'Wow, this kid actually said thank you.'"
Yes, but can one imagine a teenager writing a thank-you note? How tedious! "No, not at all. I love it, because each letter is so different. You're writing it to a different person. You can express it in as many ways as possible, so you just add your own little sentimental touch. 'Awesome, beautiful, gorgeous, spectacular.'" It's still your writing, but you want to have, like, a little spunk in your letter."
Ali Spizman's thoughts this Thanksgiving? "It's not like one person's holiday. It's not like a birthday," she says. "It's everybody's holiday, where everybody can share thank-yous. And you really express how you feel about people on this holiday."
And remember, says the now-16-year-old author of The Thank You Book for Kids, "a smile is like a thank-you in its own special way."
Ali Spizman even has her own website, with more ways to say "thank you" this Thanksgiving, or any day. It is www.thankyoukids.com