Trees of Thanksgiving

by Melissa Taft
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photos and writing by Melissa Taft

My favorite season is autumn. There is a richness of beauty amongst the gathered bouquets of jewel-hued trees; every year the leaves return in fiery embers and golden strands that keep cheer defiant against darkening skies. Before the cozy sleep of soil and sun, the streets and yards where I live become papered with a patchwork quilt of purple and orange. My Japanese maple turns from russet to electric red. It’s so bright that when the light catches, it glows. The spectacular display draws my eyes up, then reminds me to slow down and let the dead things fall away–even in the fading of the old, there is new life and loveliness. 

I find much to be thankful for during this season, and over the years have enjoyed incorporating the colors and themes of autumn into gratitude practices. One of my favorite ways to do this is to create Trees of Thanksgiving. Often in November I will start a list of things to be thankful for each day, and sometimes I have recorded these things on leaves that I display. Sometimes I use this as a countdown to Thanksgiving, other times I go the whole month. And sometimes, I find ways to incorporate both ‘thanks’ and ‘giving’ into the adventure–often including others. 

One year when my two children were small, we were part of a larger homeschooling program that brought bonding with a group of families. Over shared meals and talents, we parents curated community events and craft projects. My contribution that year was to create a tree of Thanks and Giving. Little hands were traced, and then cut out shapes of hands and hearts, brown construction paper pieced together into trunks and branches, and a sign to guide the community. I set up opportunities to give, such as a box to donate food. When gifts were given or received, they were recorded on the hands. When a reason for being grateful was found, it was recorded on a heart. By the end of November, our humble little tree was covered in preschooler hieroglyphs, neat cursive, and various pictures and writings expressing gratitude and gifts. Friends or a community participating in gratitude goals can accomplish mighty things! 

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For many years, my church participated in a thanksgiving meal program. Several years in a row, they hung up a tree of some kind and placed the food needs for the meal baskets on leaves that we were encouraged to adopt. It was very exciting to see the full tree divested of leaves and the baskets under it filled with food for hungry bellies! Corporate trees of gratitude and giving can be encouraging expressions of God’s love in us and through us. 

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But my personal favorite Trees of Thanksgiving have been the ones created in my home. I’ve often included my little family in my gratitude practice of naming at least one thing a day to be thankful for. Sometimes we did this in a list, but it was always a lot more fun to make a craft project to display. I so enjoy bringing the ephemeral beauty of autumn inside, and my kids enjoyed creating art. We have made posters, we’ve pressed leaves and words and crayon shavings between wax paper to display on our sliding glass door, and one particular year I came up with a plan to both express gratitude and encourage my now teenage offspring. 

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Lashing some fallen branches together with decorative twine, I secured my ‘tree’ in a vase filled with decorative rocks. I cut out leaves from leftover scrapbook paper, counting out the days until Thanksgiving so that each of the four of us would have one leaf per day, then writing down an initial on each leaf. The weekend before November started, I divvied up the leaves so that each of us had an equal amount and tasked them to come up with reasons to be grateful for those named. This was done in secret; no one knew what was being written about them. I gathered the leaves, then each day in November added one leaf per family member. Four little leaves suspended on a twig, representing a weekend’s worth of heart work. Each branch represented a day until Thanksgiving. 

And thus, every day a new reason someone was appreciated appeared. A little love note of gratitude from father to child and child to father, or sibling to sibling, or mother. A mix of silly and sweet, surprising and deep. When the branches were full, and our Thanksgiving meal finished, we took down the leaves for each to keep, and each read out loud the 20 odd things that someone in the family appreciated about them. I still have these treasures. After all, as lovely as it is to let things go, my favorite pieces of autumn remain with me always.

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