Chris Stedman is an atheist religion professor. His sister's a Lutheran. Spiritually, their siblings fall somewhere in between.
When they gather for Thanksgiving, they don't say grace as their grandparents once did. Instead, they take a moment for a simple practice that's become a family tradition.
Before the meal, everyone writes at least one thing that they're grateful for on a slip of paper without signing their names, then they put the slips of paper into a bowl. Once they're seated, they pass the bowl around and read each other's "gratitudes" out loud.
"It's this nice mix of things that are humorous and things that are really heartfelt and sincere," said Stedman, an author and podcaster who teaches at Augsburg University in Minneapolis. "It's this thing that I think everyone feels really included in, whereas, if it were a traditional kind of prayer or something like that, that wouldn't necessarily resonate with everybody."
For Stedman, the practice offers a moment to pause and reflect, which is an important part of so many rituals, whether religious or secular, traditional or DIY.
"They take us outside of our normal everyday routines and give us a chance to pause, to check in with ourselves, to kind of reorient ourselves back to what's important to us," he said. "They remind us that we're trying to live in a particular way, maybe a more intentional way."
Saying a prayer or blessing before a meal is a tradition in nearly every religious culture, including Islam, Hinduism, Bahai, Christianity and Judaism. Even as religious affiliation continues to fall — with just 47% of all Americans belonging to a church, synagogue or mosque according to a March Gallup poll — coming together before a meal to give thanks endures in many homes.
About half of all Americans say a grace of some sort at least a few times a week, according to a 2017 Washington Post and Kaiser Family Foundation poll.Even for those who don't regularly give thanks, Thanksgiving is often the exception.Those who aren't part of an organized religion may create their own way to observe, by giving a reading, reciting a poem or holding hands for a moment of silence together.
But saying grace — in whatever form it takes — can be more than just a spiritual practice. There are tangible mental and physical health benefits to the ritual. It can teach a lesson in gratitude, provide a moment of mindfulness and help us to recognize the simple joys of coming together.
For wellness dietitian Jason Ewoldt, who guides people in the practice of mindful eating at the Mayo Clinic Healthy Living Program, a pre-meal pause is part of a healthy dinner.
"Mindfulness before meals can help reduce stress and anxiety and take us off 'auto pilot' and refocus our attention to the present moment," he said. "It can also help us to become more aware to how much and why we are eating."
Ewoldt advises anyone interested in mindful eating to spend five minutes reflecting before a meal a couple of times a week.
"Practice gratitude. Reflect on the day. Take a few controlled breaths. Let go of stressors, to-do lists, personal expectations and self-judgments while eating," he said.
Even for those whose meals might begin mindlessly 364 days of the year, Thanksgiving may be different.
The holiday (even as historical facts complicate its myth) has become part of what's called America's "civil religion," which isn't a denomination but has shared sacred symbols, practices and values, said Deanna Thompson, director of the Lutheran Center for Faith, Values, and Community at St. Olaf College in Northfield.
While not a religious holiday, Thanksgiving is sacred for some Americans and can be claimed by all faiths — inspiring prayers or family table traditions to mark it as special. It also is a day for interfaith services in many American cities.
In Minneapolis, Temple Israel hosts an annual Thanksgiving Day interfaith service that brings together congregations from more than a dozen area churches, mosques and temples.
"There's a commonality here of being grateful to God for the harvest, for food, for our family, for the lives we're living in this country," said Thompson.
In her own home, Thompson follows in her parents' and grandparents' tradition of saying grace. As a national expert on interfaith dialogue and worship, she is also often thinking about the ways that people of different faiths or beliefs can come together to give thanks before a meal.
"When people eat together, that practice can do much more than just nourish our bodies — it can nourish our souls," she said. "It's important to pause before we eat and give thanks for the food and the people who prepared it ... the people who grew and harvested the food and got it to the point that we're able to enjoy it."
Her family often recites the Christian mealtime prayer that begins, "Come, Lord Jesus, be our guest … " but Thompson also finds that a less specific grace a pastor friend uses can be fitting for a table surrounded by those of varying beliefs: "For what we are about to receive, make us truly grateful."
Another way to approach a meal among people of differing faiths is to ask guests to bless the food or the gathering in their own way, highlighting instead of setting aside traditions that are meaningful to them.
Bringing meaning to the table
For Laura Adelman's family of four, weekday meals in their Plymouth home are often rushed.
Every Friday night for the Jewish Shabbat, however, they have what she calls a "relaxed family meal" and make time to say many blessings, which they recite in Hebrew.
"Baruch ata Adonai Eloheinu melech ha'olam hamotzi lechem min ha'aretz," they say to bless the bread. "Blessed are you, Adonai our God, ruler of the universe, who brings forth bread from the earth."
"There are special blessings for the candle lighting, for the food and drinks, and blessings for our children that they are brave, wise and kind — like their ancestors before them," she said. "Our Shabbat meal could be anything from roast chicken to matzo ball soup to takeout pizza. The meal served doesn't matter; it's the togetherness that's most important."
They also have another Friday family tradition — reading questions from the game set "Table Topics." They all take turns going around the table answering the cards' prompts, such as, "If you could invite anyone over, who would you invite and why?" Adelman said.
"These questions have sparked lots of interesting discussions with our 6-year-old, Sophie," she said.
Emma Dunn also celebrates Shabbat each week with her fiance in Minneapolis.
Dunn, who is the Young Adult Engagement Manager at Jewish Federations of Minneapolis and St. Paul, didn't grow up with the practice (she converted as an adult and didn't say grace as a child) but finds Shabbat to be "an oasis."
"There's a quote from Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel that 'Shabbat is a palace in time,'" said Dunn. "Which is really just a reflection of people looking for the chance to put their phone down, to look around the table and meet someone new, or to spend the time with friends and family that they know well, really putting intention into the end of the week and the meal."
An enduring connection
Growing up, the Rev. Mark Hanson's Lutheran family prayed not only before meals but also after them.
"Anxious to go play, I sometimes would get restless waiting for others to finish eating so we could pray," said Hanson, the founding director of Interfaith at Augsburg University.
After everyone had eaten, only the words "God is great, God is good. And we thank him for this food," would unlock them all from their seats, he said.
When Hanson's six kids were small, they recited the pre-meal prayer that both he and his wife, Ione, had said at their supper tables as children. Hanson decided to skip that post-meal verse, however.
"We knew asking everyone to remain at the table until we all were done eating so that we could pray again was not wise, given the energy of at least some of our children!" he said.
Hanson believes that "family table traditions" of a prayer and meal together brought a lot to their family.
One of his adult sons recently told him, "I always knew that no matter how badly I screwed up, when I came home there would always be a place for me at the table and that you and mom still loved me," Hanson said.
Hanson now sets a place for one at his table. The children all are grown, and his wife is in memory care.
"Most meals I eat alone, but I still pray," he said. "It is a way of staying connected through prayer with God, with Ione, our family and those who are hungry in the world."
This is his mealtime prayer:
"Come, Lord Jesus, be our guest, and let these gifts to us be blessed.
Blessed be God, who is our bread:
may all the world be clothed and fed."