Happy. Holy. Jolly. Merry. Tra la la la.

‘Tis the season, right?

For many of us, Advent and Christmas are more stressed than blessed. We have all our normal work, plus a slew of extras, mixed in with expectations, dreams and desires, all bathed in the soft light of Norman Rockwell memories of things that never were.

This year, in particular, is tough for a lot of people because of the economy. Even modest traditions may have to be modified because of financial reality.

Which brings me to this topic: Gratitude versus Thanks.

While the dictionary suggests these are the same, I maintain there is a very real difference. Thanks is our response to something good, nice, pleasant, kind or generous. Basically, giving thanks is a reaction to something that has been done to or for us. We give thanks for the tangible, even if it’s an ephemeral tangible like a compliment. Thanks can be heartfelt and deeply emotional but sometimes, thanks is no more than just a quick, tossed-off word. Regardless, thanks is a temporary experience, a momentary surge of emotion, soon to be forgotten by the next new concern that presses upon us.

Gratitude, on the other hand, is a state of being. It has nothing to do with what we have or what is happening to us. It is rooted in the essence of life and of love. And in the essence of Life and Love.

This Advent and Christmas, you may feel as if trying to dredge up thanks is an exercise in Pollyannaism—looking for tiny gold needles in haystacks of moldy straw. However, no matter what your circumstances, you can still live in gratitude—gratitude for the Divine Love that gives you breath; for your body, mind and soul; for life, all life, itself. You can make your very existence into a hymn of gratitude, even as you recognize (and maybe even grumble a bit) about some of the details.

Living in gratitude doesn’t mean you have to prance about with cheery, happy feelings all the time. You can experience any emotion—even sorrow—and still be grateful, because gratitude stems from a decision, not a feeling. You decide to be grateful. Gratitude is what the prophet Habakkuk expresses when he writes:

Though the fig tree does not blossom,
and no fruit is on the vines;
...though the produce of the olive fails
and the fields yield no food;
though the flock is cut off from the fold
and there is no herd in the stalls,
yet I will rejoice in the Lord;
I will exult in the God of my salvation. (Habakkuk 3:17-18)

The woodworker mystical English poet Caryll Houselander called Advent the “season of the seed.” This Advent, I encourage you to plant a seed of gratitude deep within your heart so that no matter what happens—unblossomed fig trees and barren fields or rich harvest and filled storehouses—you will be at peace—that” peace of God, which transcends all understanding.”