For the past month, I’ve been preparing for our Thanksgiving Assembly. This program is like a school play involving students acting out stories telling about the origins of Thanksgiving and Native American folklore. My part involved teaching my third graders “Simple Gifts” with an Orff accompaniment (those xylophone instruments). Closing the assembly with “Simple Gifts” is a much-loved tradition in this school and I was more than happy to teach this song.
“Simple Gifts” is a song composed by the Shakers, a religious organization formally known as the United Society Of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing. They were most active in the early 1800s and lived in communal communities. This group got the nickname “Shakers” because of the way they danced. Music and dancing was central to the Shakers spiritual experience and “Simple Gifts” like many of their songs is a dance tune.
Aaron Copland popularized this song including it in the music he composed for the ballet, Appalachian Springs.
An arrangement of this song was also performed at the inauguration of President Obama.
That is pretty much where my knowledge of this song stopped.
Last week ten minutes before I was going to teach a class, I found out I was going to teach a different class. Without a lesson plan I hurriedly created a worksheet about the song “Simple Gifts.” The first two pages were a fill in the blank lyric activity and on the last page I asked my students to write down their three favorite “simple gifts” from the song and to come up with three “simple gifts” that were not in the song.
The worksheet did a nice job of filling up most of the lesson and at the end I brought the class together to discuss what they had written down. After going through the worksheet, I asked my students to define a “simple gift.”
They told me that “simple gifts” are not things that you can out put in a box. One of my students articulated that a simple gifts is something that you do for each other. When I asked them what wasn’t a "simple gift," they gave me examples like video games and televisions and when I asked them to come up with “simple gifts” they responded with the idea of sharing and being kind.
Thanks to my third graders now I understand why “Simple Gifts” is a fitting song for Thanksgiving. The most important gifts in life, the things that we are thankful for are not things that you can put a price tag on. They are things that we do for each other and with each other. In thinking about the gifts that we are thankful for it encourages us to pass on those gifts to the ones we loves transforming the act of thanksgiving to an act of giving.
‘Tis the gift to be loving,
‘Tis the best gift of all,
Like a warm spring rain bringing beauty when it falls,
And as we use this gift we may come to believe,
It is better to give than it is to receive.