For some, Thanksgiving is a brutal reminder of genocide of Native Americans by European colonists. Sorry for the harshness of that statement. Others may find the religious connotation an inappropriate interpretation of separation of church and state. Many historians site America's first Thanksgiving, also known as the autumn harvest feast, to have occurred roughly 391 years ago, when 53 Plymouth colonists and 90 Wampanoag Indians gathered together to celebrate the harvest. This celebration was said to have lasted three days and included prayers of thanksgivings. In 1789, President George Washington designated Thanksgiving Day as a "...day of public thanksgiving and prayer to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many signal favors of Almighty God especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness..."[i]
Several (but not all) presidents following Washington proclaimed an annual Thanksgiving Day. It wasn't until about 149 years ago (1863) when President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed a national Thanksgiving Day (in the midst of the Civil War) on the last Thursday in November. The actual date became a political issue, when in 1941, under President Franklin Roosevelt, the 4th Thursday of the month of November was officially declared as the national holiday, Thanksgiving Day. This declaration did not come without controversy as some politicians believed this came as an affront to President Lincoln's proclamation. This divided Republicans and Democrats to the point where Republicans celebrated Thanksgiving one week and Democrats the next. Maybe it's this divisiveness that makes some folks depressed during the holidays. But enough about the politics of Thanksgiving, let's move on to the food.
The first feast likely included venison (Wampanoag guests arrived bearing five deer). Dishes were likely prepared using traditional Native American spices and cooking methods. No oven and little sugar, so no pies, cakes or other desserts - however, Squanto (a member of the Pawtuxet tribe who resided with the Wampanoag) had taught the Pilgrims how to cultivate maple syrup. Lobster, seal and swans were also likely on the menu. Turkey, though native to America, didn't become a popular addition to the Thanksgiving table until sometime around the late 1700's.
Modern day Thanksgiving tends to get lost in the buffet table. Many of us actually plan ahead to overeat, overindulge and actually gorge ourselves until we are literally uncomfortable in our own skin. As a result, we not only lose sight of the thankfulness aspect, we feel awful and depressed due to the overindulgence - but enough of the doom and gloom. When we shift our focus to gratitude over food, we actually feed our minds and souls in ways that continue to energize us long after the feast is over.
Thanksgiving is truly an opportunity to exercise moderation and gratitude for the abundance that is our birthright. Vital nutrition creates powerful energy; circulating, nourishing and feeding positivity, creativity and love. All the inspiration we will ever need to make healthier choices can come when we open our hearts along with our mouths and eat with gratitude and thanksgiving.
To create and maintain a sense of gratitude is inspiring and humbling. Physiologically we are innately positive beings, "wired" for optimism. Most of us want to experience the holiday season with grace, openness, and love. Yet even with our sincerest intentions the holidays can challenge our vision to express the spirit of the season; too much to do and not enough time, money, or help. Family dynamics, "issues," politics, you name it, somehow the holidays don't always bring out the best in humans. Stress and seemingly countless errands become thieves that steal our goodwill and gratitude. So what can we do to stay positive and thankful at a time when we may be tempted by pessimism?
An attitude of gratitude is developed through awareness of life's daily miracles, including the choice to feed and nourish mind and emotions with empowering foods and exercise. One key component for mood mending involves a neurotransmitter in the brain called serotonin, often referred to as the "good mood hormone." When our bodies produce sufficient serotonin we can feel better balanced and happier because this chemical helps to promote relaxation, restful sleep, and a feeling of well being. Some of the holidays harsher habits - too much sugar and alcohol, excess protein, too many offending fats disguised in beckoning dessert buffets of cakes, pastries, and candy, can lead to blood sugar imbalances, lack of motivation to exercise, and increased stress, resulting in reduced serotonin levels and the potential for a variety of health challenges, including depression.
Building and maintaining optimum serotonin levels can be achieved by adding many delicious and nutritious foods. Consider the serotonin building block or precursor tryptophan. Tryptophan is an essential amino acid found in a variety of delicious and nutritious foods like (yes) turkey, cottage cheese, salmon, oatmeal, cheese, whole wheat, yogurt, eggs, and even chocolate (in moderation). Adding these foods to your diet (IN MODERATION) can help to raise serotonin. To maximize the absorption and assimilation of tryptophan from dairy or animal sources, combine these foods with whole-grain based carbohydrates. Omega-3-rich nuts and seeds, folate-rich crucifers like broccoli and brussels sprouts, and vitamins B12 and B6-rich fish, brans, and sea vegetables will also contribute to a positive state of mind. This cornucopia of mood enhancing foods is supportive in building healthy brain chemistry, enabling you to thrive and not merely survive Thanksgiving and the holiday season.
Another way to uplift the holiday spirit is through consistent exercise. Motion builds positive emotion and exercise may be the most powerful of all our natural antidepressants. Our family and friends Thanksgiving tradition always includes a hike before the feast. Whether we are gathered in Colorado, California, or New England, we fit in at least an hour of a great walk or hike before planting ourselves in front of the holiday buffet.
In our hurried holiday pace it is all too easy to let go of our exercise routines - and no, dashing from store to store does not count as mindful movement. So please don't believe that a Black Friday shopping extravaganza can replace a real workout. Over 100 clinical studies confirm the effectiveness of exercise in the prevention and treatment of depression. As little as 10 minutes three times daily (we often spend more time in buffet lines) can have a powerful and positive impact on both emotional and physical well-being.
Gratitude is an elixir for life. We need not isolate one day a year to think about what we are grateful for. Create time each day to reflect and be present for the blessings unfolding all around. Gratitude opens the heart to receive and be in the true essence of Thanksgiving.