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REAL LIFE

'90s FAMILY : Any Way Is a Good Way to Give Thanks

November 23, 1994|LYNN SMITH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Thank God we don't feel the way we used to about the late fall harvest.

In the old days, we expressed our gratitude to the higher power by sacrificing a goat or a passing stranger as soon as the last ear of corn was picked.

By the time of the first Thanksgiving, all that had changed and most of us were making short prayers of blessing and thanks over roast turkey and a steamed vegetable platter.

At least that's how it is in the movie "Squanto," where the Native Americans offer humble and respectful words to the creator as Colonists pass around squash bowls filled with mixed vegetables that look as if they came straight from Rosie's kitchen. But nowadays, many people say grace only when relatives come over, or not at all. Atheists, naturally, don't believe in Anyone to thank. Dieters, of course, probably feel more resentment than gratitude toward a plate loaded with fat and cholesterol.

Those with established religious or cultural traditions have no problem knowing what to say. Rabbi David Eliezrie of the North Orange County Chabad Center said observant Jews have offered the same simple blessing over every meal for thousands of years:

"Blessed are you Lord our God, King of the universe, who brings forth bread from the Earth."

The British have always taken a sensible approach, as in this prayer found at Chester Cathedral: "Give me a good digestion, Lord/And also something to digest."

A blessing from Africa evokes natural traditions: "We swim in your grace like a whale in the ocean. The saying goes, 'An ocean never dries up,' but we know your grace also never fails. This food you have given us is one more proof."

Young children have always had their own silent favorites, a perennial being: "Past the teeth and through the gums, look out stomach, here it comes."

But modern adults can find some updated ideas in such books as "Table Graces" (Peter Pauper Press, 1986). There are graces for:

* rationalizers ("If we deny ourselves adequate food or a balanced diet, we violate God's plan. Help us, Lord, to eat wisely.");

* environmentalists ("Help us to ensure that our food shall be free from radioactive contamination.");

* socially conscious but guilty philosophers ("The bellies of Third World children swell through malnutrition, but the only way our bellies swell is through overeating. We wonder what God's plan on this Earth must be.").

Some sentiments appear frighteningly similar to the old days.

In the 1977 book "Table Prayers," author Mildred Tengbom reprints a dire song by someone named "Mother Mary Owen":

"God loves me and he gives me food and very good food he gives. It makes me big and it makes me strong and my body grows and lives. If he didn't give me food, I would die, die, die. I would simply fade away. So I'll tell him now that I'm very glad that he loves me so today."

All things considered, some people think it's best to leave well enough alone.

Ken Levy of Eagle Rock said his Thanksgiving gatherings are very modern and civilized, including as they have his wife's ex-husband (and his father) and their daughter, his mother-in-law and her two ex-husbands and current companion. Because Levy and his wife consider themselves secular humanists, they don't usually say anything anyway over the turkey and trimmings before they dig in.

"We just call the people in," he said. "We might say something like, 'Hey, people, the food's ready!' " Then, he said, "We just eat."

But afterward, he said, they run the leftovers over to Hennacy House in Boyle Heights, a commune of Catholic Workers who annually invite 50 Skid Row regulars to join them for Thanksgiving.

There the hosts are believers and the guests are presumably grateful for food. The words are informal and spontaneous. Said community member Kieran Prather: "We all gather in a side yard and hold hands and invite one of the guests to make up a grace or say something they know."

The point is to offer a family environment as well as free food, he said. If they're grateful, fine; if not, that's OK too.

"Hopefully," he said, "everyone is."

Treat Yourself Like Company

If you'll be spending part or all of the holiday season alone, psychologist Amy Stark offers the following tips:

* Examine your motivations for wanting to spend the holidays alone. Make sure that it is really a choice and not that you're playing the martyr.

* If you choose to spend the holidays alone, don't feel guilty. "It's your choice," Stark says. "If you feel good about the decision and are happy, then what does it matter what other people think?"

* Look at the time to yourself as a welcome thing. Realize you don't have the pressure of pleasing anyone else and take advantage by doing something you enjoy.

* Don't deny yourself a celebration just because you're alone. "Put up a tree or decorate," Stark says. "Do whatever you want to make the holiday festive."

* Treat yourself like company. "Don't say, 'It's just me, so why bother,' " Stark says. "You're the most important person, so treat yourself."

When she's spending Christmas alone, Stark makes herself Danish fruit soup from an old family recipe. "I love that soup," she says. "I sit down on Christmas Eve and enjoy every spoonful."

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