For most of us, Christmas is over by now. The presents have all been unwrapped, the stockings have been emptied, and now we face the task of returning to the day-to-day routine that, for a brief time every year, gets suspended in lieu of the holiday season. Many of us, myself included, have returned to our day jobs, albeit reluctantly, and soon the kids will be returning to school. It’s sad how fast the spirit of love and generosity that is at the heart of the Christmas season fades into the background as daily life begins once again to take over our thoughts and our conscience. But before that warm fuzziness of Christmas gives way to the cold reality of going to work before sunrise in January, I want to take a minute to talk about the difference between “thankful” and “grateful.”
In the weeks leading up to Thanksgiving Thursday in November, my wife and I typically have the kids begin making a list of the things they are thankful for in their lives. These lists often include things like family, friends, freedom, a home to live in, and the like. These are just some of the blessings we have in our lives, and I think it’s important to try and keep a thankful heart and mind throughout the year, not just in or around the holiday of Thanksgiving. That’s not always an easy thing to do, but the truth is our blessings are there all year round and we should be giving thanks for them all year round as well.
But there is a subtle, yet very important difference between being thankful (giving thanks) and being grateful. And to me, Christmas is all about being grateful. All of the things that fill our kids’ lists around Thanksgiving, and the things that we adults give thanks for as well are blessing s in our lives—in other words, they are things that to some degree or another are outside of our control. We can’t choose to be born into a loving family, but we can give thanks that we were, for instance. But the things that happen to us around Christmas time are different. They are the result of someone else going out of their way to do something nice for us as an act of love. And that is where grateful comes into play.
When you look up the definitions of the words “thankful” and “grateful” you see that the two are very similar in nature and character, but the feeling of being “grateful” or showing “gratitude” involves another person or group of people. It involves a deliberate act of personal kindness that inspires a warm or deep feeling of appreciation in the person who receives that act. I can’t think of a better way to describe the feeling I get every single Christmas as I am overwhelmed by the outpouring of love and generosity my family and I receive.
Whether it’s in the form of thoughtful presents carefully wrapped under the tree or the way my wife gets up at five in the morning to begin baking cookies, cakes, and macaroni and cheese for the family dinner, Christmas is a season that inspires gratitude in a very deep and very personal way. People work to save money that could have spent on themselves, on bills, on groceries, or any of a thousand other small needs we all have throughout the year and instead spend that hard earned money to buy gifts for others. They take time out of busy and hectic schedules to cook foods and treats, to make gifts and presents that are personal, or to complete the “some assembly required” that dad’s around the world at times dread seeing printed on the side of the box. Acts of kindness pour out around Christmas time like no other time in the year, and for that brief moment we all realize that rather than drifting through the sea of life as isolated islands, we are all connected to each other by bonds of friendship, family, and shared humanity.
In a speech delivered to a St. Louis church last year, one of my all-time favorite actors and a personal hero of mine, Denzel Washington said “It is impossible to be grateful and hateful at the same time…” I think Mr. Washington hit on a deep and fundamental truth that has been lost on many of us in this age of instant gratification. When we keep a sense of gratitude in our hearts and make being grateful a part of our daily lives it forces us to recognize not only the blessings in our lives but the good in other people.
So, as we look forward to the dawn of a new year in a few days, I am making a personal commitment to keep a grateful as well as a thankful heart. Because I have many blessings to be thankful for and many people in my life, my family and friends chief among them, for whom to be grateful.