Thanksgiving, as wonderful a holiday as it is, can often be a concentrated source of feelings that are anything but thankful. If you are the one hosting, you’ve got to clean the whole house and figure out how everyone is going to fit at the table. The newest family member is on a diet and can’t eat anything but green peas, so now what? You forgot the extra pound of butter you need for your pastry dough and have to run to the grocery store and wait in those terribly long lines, where everyone around you is behaving like they’ve got an unhappy heart. The last thing you want is to be at the grocery store buying butter, but there you are, because you are hosting. Or maybe it’s not about hosting woes—maybe your family has suffered a loss recently, and this is the first holiday since then, and the feelings of sadness are very fresh and raw. It can be very hard to be thankful at a time like that.

And then, if you’ve survived your hosting or grieving or family drama on Thanksgiving, it’s followed by the day every shopper waits for: Black Friday. A day when everything goes on sale. A day when everyone stands in more lines—on purpose, not because they forgot the extra pound of butter. We’re aiming to give thanks on Thanksgiving, but by day’s end, we still want more. It’s like we stuff our gratitude into one day, only to empty it out in a shopping frenzy the next.

How did the holiday that is supposed to help us be thankful for what we have, actually make it harder to be thankful? How can Thanksgiving and this concept of giving thanks be so similar, and yet so different?

Last year, in preparation for Thanksgiving, Mike and I incorporated a Thankful Tree into our November evenings. I foraged for sticks in our backyard, arranged them all sweetly in a vase, cut out card stock tags, and set my creation on the kitchen table. Every evening during dinner, we would take a tag and write something on it that we were thankful for. I think my first tag said “Mike!” and his was “the Gospel.” It was a heartfelt endeavor done by us to intentionally call to mind things we enjoyed and were thankful to have or to have received. I felt a little sad when I tossed the tags in the trash after the holiday, but the tags weren’t what I was thankful for—they were there to display what I was thankful for.

This Thanksgiving season, however, we did not have a Thankful Tree. The end of October brought a marathon-reading of Harry Potter, the home-stretch training miles for an actual marathon, and a host of other responsibilities that made it difficult for me to pull it together. I had several friends on Facebook post daily updates with things they were thankful for—the most recent I saw was a friend who is thankful she’s from the South. Earlier this week I tried to purchase some table decorations for Thursday, but since I didn’t buy those in September, I am out of luck. As much as our culture and surroundings love the Thanksgiving season, it is quickly ushered out of the stores even before the turkeys (or ham, or turkey-substitutes) enter our ovens.

But what about giving thanks? What’s that all about? Is it actually different than Thanksgiving? Let’s step back and evaluate what “giving thanks” means. It’s not just a list of things we enjoy: running! cookies! coffee! indoor plumbing! grace! It’s an attitude, a way of living our days. It takes work to be thankful every day, and it’s much harder work to be thankful when the line at the grocery store is so long at the end of an already long work day.

I can write on card stock tags that I am thankful for Mike, running, and God’s grace. But those words aren’t tangible; they’re just words. It’s easy, almost too easy, to forget that I’m thankful for my husband when he upsets me. It’s easy to forget that I’m thankful for running when the miles don’t come easy and it’s so cold outside these days. It’s easy to forget that I’m thankful for God’s grace in Christ when sorrow is all that I can see.

The wonderful thing about Thanksgiving is the unavoidable opportunity we have to be thankful. But it can happen, and should happen, on the other days of the year, as well. How is this possible? How can we cultivate sincere thankfulness in the difficult moments of our everyday lives?

I think one way of cultivating a thankful heart starts with consciously reminding ourselves of this truth: We have a good and gracious God who loves us. He has given us life through His Son, through Christ we have received grace upon grace, and we can trust that God hears us when we pray—in the long line at the grocery store, and when our hearts are full of sorrow because of a painful loss that we don’t understand.

Another step is to make tangible and conscious efforts to love those around us—family, friends, neighbors, and coworkers. Part of that is being aware of what they want and need, and being graciously willing to care for them. We don’t just have things to be thankful for—we have people to be thankful for. 

I’ve recently found that the times I’m prone to be less-than-thankful are perfect opportunities to refocus and reframe my heart. For example, when I’m waiting in a frustratingly long line at the grocery store, that’s a good time for me to remember that I have the resources to buy food and the means to prepare it. In all honesty, the daily tasks of housework are hard for me to be thankful for. On the hard days, the quickest way out of my ungratefulness is just to being aware of what it is I’m actually doing—caring for a husband, washing food off of dishes, all within a warm house with running water. How can I not be thankful for that?

Thanksgiving Day isn’t the one and only day to be thankful—it’s the day we can pause and reflect to remember how much we have to be thankful for, give thanks to the gracious God who has given us so much, and then find ways to practice gratitude every day. You can’t turn a thankful heart on and off like a lamp—it’s more like priming a pump. You work at it. It doesn’t have to come out perfectly all on one day. That’s one difference between Thanksgiving and giving thanks: Thanksgiving is a holiday; giving thanks is a way of life.

So this Thanksgiving, as you pass the turkeys, hams, and sides-galore, let the words of Paul in Colossians season your heart and mind: be thankful. And know that you have more than one day to do it.