Writing down and saving one thing everyone is grateful for each week leads to an amazing New Year’s Day reveal
One of our favorite family traditions was inspired by—of all things—a half-remembered episode of Oprah: on Sunday nights, my husband, daughter, and I take a couple of minutes after dinner to write down one thing we are grateful for from the previous week. Sometimes it’s a hassle to find paper and pens. Sometimes we’re not in the mood because we want to get the dishes washed or flake out in front of New Girl. But most Sundays, we make the small effort to jot down something good.
The payoff for this tiny delay in our TV viewing is that on New Year’s Day, we read all those notes. While one of us might be nursing a hangover, another riding a sugar high, and the third frantically decluttering in the hopes of starting the new year off “right,” we gather at the kitchen table and take turns unfurling and reading aloud. It’s a small, low-key way to remember the things that made us happy over the past year and to start the next one filled with family memories and thankfulness.
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Our entries are not always very original or deep. Many are variations of “I am grateful for the delicious dinner we just had,” “I am grateful for Daffodil (our dog),” and “I am grateful for my family.”
Still, the process reminds us of mundane events from the past year that we’d otherwise forget. Remember when we were briefly obsessed with spiralizing vegetables? Remember how we played badminton every day after dinner in June? Remember that October walk in the woods when the leaves were just spectacular?
The tradition also marks bigger moments. When Ottawa was hit by a big tornado-like windstorm called a derecho, whole swaths of the city lost power for up to a week. The dividing line between those who had power and those who didn’t was literally the street next to us. We continued to have electricity, and our gratitudes from May—“I am grateful for electricity,” “I am grateful for wifi,” and “I am grateful for the fridge”—reflect that.
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There are seasonal ones as well: lots of talk of skating and hot chocolate in the winter, the departure of the snow and the arrival of longer days in the spring, thankfulness for the beach and swimming in the summer, and remarks on the beauty of the autumn landscape in the fall. Our little scraps of paper are tangible markers of the passage of time and remind us of our links to those moments.
It’s not all connections to Mother Earth, however. Our favorite TV shows make frequent appearances: “I am grateful for Only Murders in the Building” was a common refrain.
The nice thing about the tradition is that I keep all those scraps of paper and we can go back and reflect on years past. Our 2020 and 2021 gratitudes are reminders of the fear and preoccupations of the COVID-19 pandemic. We were grateful for Zoom calls with family, puzzles, board games, badminton matches, negative Covid tests, elaborate meals, and eventually—at last—vaccines. While the pandemic was, and is, incredibly challenging, the gratitudes from that time are a snapshot of an extraordinary moment in history that also brought us closer together.
The little tradition pays off in multiple ways. It allows us to take a small pause in our week to come up with something to be thankful for, which has real, measurable health benefits. And every January 1st, it brings our family together in a shared tradition, generating laughter, reflection, and a sense that we (the three of us, plus Daffodil, of course)—are a unit that experienced the past 365 days together.
Plus, you never know what surprises will surface. This past year, we rented out our house for a few days in July. When we unrolled our gratitudes on January 1, we discovered one written by an unfamiliar hand. “I am grateful for the lovely home we got to stay in for a few days.”
It was a little shocking and weird to think our AirBnB’ers had snooped in our gratitude bowl, but it was also sweet and funny—kind of like the gratitude experience itself.
Amy Tector is an archivist and novelist in Ottawa, Canada. Her latest novel, Speak for the Dead, comes out in March 2023. You can follow her newsletter at amytector.substack.com.