Feeling gratitude and not expressing it is like wrapping a present and not giving it. ~William Arthur Ward

Thanksgiving is too wonderful a holiday to let slip by without some intentional, active gratitude. But unless we’re deliberate, that’s exactly what will happen. Already busy lives seem to be compounded this time of year, right? By the time Thanksgiving Day arrives, we can be so emotionally and physically tired from all the prep or travel that the actual “giving thanks” gets lost.

But the Christian heart is a heart of gratitude. And to the extent that we express gratitude, we reflect the heart of our Savior and brother, Jesus Christ. God’s word implores us, Enter his gates with thanksgiving, and his courts with praise! Give thanks to him; bless his name!  (Psalm 100). 

We were made to worship and enjoy the triune God who has set his love upon us and lavished us with good gifts. Yet where or how do we begin this journey into the very heart of Christ? Here are some thoughts to assist you in cultivating a thankful spirit within your family this season!

1. Journal.  In the beginning of November or a few weeks prior to Thanksgiving Day, place a journal on your kitchen counter (or a highly trafficked area) or attach a paper to your refrigerator. At the top of the page you can write or print, I’m thankful for… Then encourage your family to fill out the journal as things come to mind during this season. Include anything and everything that comes to mind from the simple pleasures of life, I’m thankful for hot coffee!  To the profound, I’m thankful that God’s mercies are new every morning. Have the thankful person be sure to include his or her name next to the line of gratitude. Tell little ones who cannot write to simply share with someone in your home who can record it for him/her. On Thanksgiving Day, select a person to read the list or pass it around the table giving each person a chance to read.

2. Tell Stories. Share the story of Pastor Martin Rinkart with your family.In 1636 the Thirty Years’ War was raging. Death, disease, and economic collapse enveloped Europe in a fog of terror. One German pastor, Martin Rinkart, is said to have buried five thousand of his parishioners in one year, an average of fifteen people daily! Yet under the shadow of death and amidst a crucible of chaos, Rinkart penned this beautiful table grace for his children:
Now thank we all our God 
With heart and hands and voices 
Who wondrous things had done
In whom His world rejoices.
Who, from our mother’s arms
Hath led us on our way
With countless gifts of love
And still is ours today.

Talk about this with your family. Was this man in denial? Out of touch? Hardly. Rinkart was a person of audacious faith. He knew thanksgiving flows from love of God, not outward circumstance. Share this story and sing the table grace he wrote for his children.

3. Serve… together as a family. Collect canned goods, rake leaves for your neighbors, volunteer in a soup kitchen, or invite an outsider (maybe a college student, a single person from church, or someone who is new to the area) to celebrate Thanksgiving with you. Ask your kids to think of 
someone from their school whom they might like to bless with a basketful of goodies. Start a “giving jar” where you put spare change or extra dollars with the goal of giving to someone in need. Ask your kids if they have any ideas regarding service. Get creative. The possibilities 
are endless.
4. Create.  Have your kids make creative place cards for Thanksgiving dinner. Instead of just cards with names, have them write, ‘I’m thankful for Grandma.’ Or be even more specific, ‘I’m thankful for Grandma’s chocolate chip cookies. ‘I’m thankful for Dad’s funny stories.’ ‘I’m thankful for trips to the fire station with Uncle Joe.’ This will cultivate a thankful heart in your children and bless the people who are sharing the meal with you. (Even if you’re not hosting Thanksgiving dinner, volunteer to bring place cards even if you don’t normally use them).

5. Sing.  The beautiful thing about song is that it will find its way into our 
hearts and overflow into our minds and upon our lips when we least 
expect it. Once a song finds a home, it greets you when you’re making 
breakfast, brushing your teeth, doing chores, or just walking down the 
street. Have your kids pick a song/hymn about thankfulness and sing it 
before dinner or while you’re cleaning dishes. Some classics to 
consider: Now Thank We All Our God, Praise to the Lord The Almighty, 
Give Thanks (with a grateful heart), My Heart is Filled With 
Thankfulness. (You can listen to the song online to get the tune right or 
print the lyrics, if necessary.) 

6. Connect. Take time during dinnertime in November to connect. Tell your kids about your Thanksgiving memories and traditions when you were a kid, with whom you celebrated, what you ate, games you played, places you went, etc. Ask your family or friends who may be sharing a meal with you to finish this statement, “It really doesn’t feel like Thanksgiving to me without…”

7. Remember. Why do we celebrate Thanksgiving? Take some time to remember the history of this holiday. Watch Peanuts The Mayflower Voyage with your kids (you can rent it from the library or pick it up from the store and make it a yearly family tradition). This surprisingly informative movie tells the story of the dangerous and difficult voyage made by the Pilgrims and the challenges they faced when they arrived in America. Talk with your kids about God’s provision for the pilgrims. 

Remember also how God has and is caring for us. How true are the words of, William Jennings Bryan, “On Thanksgiving Day we acknowledge our dependence.” We all have stories. God has brought us through valleys. He’s been with us in joy and sadness. And he will be with us in the days ahead. 

Not only will intentional gratitude enrich Thanksgiving, it will help us as we look forward to the season of Christmas, where the desire for stuff can run high. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to battle this cultural trend by cultivating thankful hearts in our families now, hearts of profound and simply joy? 

Thanksgiving, after all, is a word of action. ~ W.J. Cameron

Let us be actively thankful this Thanksgiving, remembering how we've been loved. Pick one or two of the above suggestions you think would bless your family and lean into the loveliness of this season. 

Steve Arterburn is the founder and chairman of New Life Ministries and host of the #1 nationally syndicated Christian counseling talk show, New Life Live! heard and watched by 2 million people each week on radio and TV. Steve is the founder of Women of Faith conferences and serves as a teaching pastor at Heartland Church in Indianapolis, Indiana. Steve is a bestselling author of 
books such as Every Man’s Battle and Healing is a Choice. Steve resides with his family in Fishers, Indiana.