A Thanksgiving Tradition: Gratitude Journals

Keep a record of what you’re thankful for—it’s sure to lift your spirits and empower you through tough times.

by Tessa Zundel
PHOTO: Tessa Zundel

Have you ever heard of a commonplace book? They were popular in Europe as early as the 15th century but were widely used in the 17th and 18th centuries. Great thinkers like John Locke and Carl Linnaeus used them as mental scrapbook, and many of the Founding Fathers and Mothers grew up with them in their homes. For individuals, it was a record of the various things one pondered and experienced—recipes, quotes, questions, moments of inspiration. In families, the commonplace book was set out in a central area, and members were invited to write down things they were contemplating, their great discoveries, quotes from books they were reading, their deep thoughts, queries and comments. Just like our yearly garden journals help us keep track of our plans and dreams for the growing season, the commonplace book became a kind of journal, chronicling in varied detail the lives of those who passed by it and wrote inside it.

Our family has kept commonplace books, and the ones we love the most are those with the theme of gratitude. Some years, the gratitude book ends up being a jar, not a book. We find a scrap of paper, write down what we’re grateful for that day, and toss it in. A mason jar or repurposed pickle jar serves wonderfully, and we’ll read them during New Year’s Day, birthdays or other meaningful milestones.

Quite often, in the months leading up to Thanksgiving, we establish a new commonplace book or thankful jar dedicated to recording what it is we’re grateful for each day. Some days I wax rhapsodic about the beauties of the falling leaves, and other days I’m just grateful I brushed my teeth. The kids love to add a lot of silly along with the serious, proclaiming gratitude for pig snouts and chicken butts.

Sometimes we create a verbal gratitude journal for our day as we drive down the road, everyone listing what they’re thankful for in that minute. It’s in my nature to lose track of details, so I’ve learned not to sweat it too much if the endeavor of recording our family’s thankful thoughts comes and goes. The point is that it softens our hearts and opens our eyes to the many, many things with which we are blessed, even if that perspective doesn’t always come to us naturally.

Why Gratitude Is Important

People who are constantly grateful can be so chipper, even when everything is falling apart. They wallow a bit or complain when life is unfair. How do they keep such a wholesome perspective?

I’ve studied history and human nature as carefully as I know how, and I think I’ve discovered a truth about these grateful people. Gratitude is empowering—it means you’re never a victim. Now, I know that’s a bold statement given the atrocities that occur, particularly those perpetrated against the innocent, but the capacity to look around my life and find things for which I’m grateful, no matter the circumstances, is a gift that means I will always win.

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Gratitude is an important skill to teach our children, and it is a skill that needs practice to develop—especially on a farm where times can be frugal and lean.

Five Kernels Of Corn

If there was any group of faith-filled people who knew the meaning of extremity, it was the early Europeans Pilgrims who came to New England in the year 1620. In that first winter, their situation was dire: scant shelter from the winter storms, disease, insufficient clothing and, certainly, lack of food. Before the first Thanksgiving celebration was held, around half of their population had died.

I’ve read some of these Pilgrim’s journal entries and know that they were strong people, but no one down the corridors of time could justly point fingers at them should they have chosen to falter. Hunger does frightening things to people. The Pilgrims would have been well within their rights to find fault with their situation, and it would seem natural if they had complained. I’m sure some did, but in the end, what we’re left with is their legacy of gratitude.

It became a tradition in New England to place five kernels of corn on each plate along with the feast at Thanksgiving. Why? Because during those harsh days of that first brutal winter, the food stores became so low that the ration for each person per day was five kernels of corn. As the years advanced, the Pilgrims didn’t want their children to forget their early sacrifices. They knew that by creating a righteous tradition of gratitude, they would ensure that those dark days were not the victor.

In our house, every year, we set a card at everyone’s plate, along with five kernels of corn, to remind us of this story. Before we devour our Thanksgiving bounty, even before we ask a blessing on the food, we go around the table and list at least five things for which we are thankful. The gratitude doesn’t have to be flashy or grand, just sincere. This process is its own kind of record, a special Thanksgiving Day journal.

Should you like to share this tradition with your family, simply visit this link to download a free copy of the placard to place at each person’s plate or to simply read aloud together:

Five Kernels Of Thanks

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