How does our big, multicultural nation say grace nowadays? Let us count the ways.

Families and friends all over Maine will gather around the table on Thanksgiving Day and say grace.

Some will join hands, Norman Rockwell-style, and listen to the family patriarch say a Christian prayer. Others will skip the deity altogether and thank the turkey for its ultimate sacrifice. Or there may be a round robin of thanksgiving as each person at the table takes a turn counting blessings from the past year.

Caitlin Hunter, the owner of Appleton Creamery, will listen to her 90-year-old father, a retired English teacher, recite a poem by Thornton Wilder; the oration has become a family tradition:

“O, pelican of eternity

That piercest thy heart for our food

We are thy fledglings that cannot know thy woe.

Bless this shadowy and visionary food of substance,

Whose last eater shall be worm

And feed us rather with the vital food of

Dreams and grace.”

It may be an odd image to contemplate just before dinner, but there is, in fact, long-forgotten Christian imagery in the poem. And it’s the tradition that makes the reading special to the family. Hunter said they are not particularly religious, and they do not say grace on a regular basis. The Wilder poem is recited with a wink, but it’s also a reminder to focus on the present moment (note the worm reference) and “enjoy this meal now because who knows what’s going to happen next week?”

Saying grace in America is a lot more complicated than it was 50 years ago. If we embrace the practice at all today, it’s not likely to look the same as it did when our grandparents sat around the dinner table. America is more multicultural and tolerant of other religions, and so our expressions of gratitude are more inclusive than they have ever been. And often they are nondenominational. The number of Americans who do not affiliate themselves with any religion – researchers call them “the nones” – is growing rapidly. One-third of adults under 30 put themselves in this category, according to a 2012 survey from the Pew Research Center.

That means younger generations may be more likely to give thanks by expressing gratitude to the person who cooked their meal or the farmer who grew it than to a higher power.

“I think grace is evolving as a tradition because traditions evolve when they no longer fit, and that’s true within families and when society as a whole changes,” said Kate Braestrup, chaplain for the Maine Warden Service and author of “Beginner’s Grace: Bringing Prayer to Life.” “The traditional patriarch thing probably was never as ubiquitous as we imagine.”

Braestrup’s own family says this daily grace: “We’re thankful for the food and for the hands that prepared it and for our family and friends.” The spiritual power in such a prayer, she says, is not in the words that are said but in the act of stopping to say them.

“Generally speaking, I think grace is one of the more natural moments for prayer, which to me is all about pausing, just stopping for a moment,” Braestrup said. “Grace is this moment when you stop and actually pay attention to something that otherwise you’re not thinking about very much at all.”

SAY IT, SING IT, WING IT

We live at a time when we have more to be thankful for than ever – even when times are bad, we are still wealthier and better fed than many other nations – but gratitude is often an afterthought, or not thought of at all at the dinner table on a busy Tuesday night. Even on our national holiday devoted to giving thanks, many of us would rather gobble down our meal and head off to go Christmas shopping at Macy’s than pause and consider our blessings.

“Too much of our life is scrubbed clean of the sacred,” said Dana Sawyer, a professor of philosophy and world religions at the Maine College of Art. “We’re drowning in materialism, not just in the consumer sense of that but in this idea that there is no metaphysical aspect to life, and I think people are kind of starved for the sacred.”

Food TV personality Alton Brown makes a habit of stopping to say grace in his daily life, even when he’s eating at a posh Manhattan restaurant. Half of hospitality is giving something of yourself to another person, he explained, but the other half is being grateful for what you are given.

“Americans by and large forget that second part,” Brown said. “We tend to be entitled. We are used to not being grateful, especially if we pay for something. It doesn’t hurt at Thanksgiving to be grateful to somebody, whatever that means to you. For each person, that’s different. For each family that’s different. But the act of gratitude, of finding a way to express that, I think that’s very important.”

Working out how to fit grace into a busy family’s life can be a challenge. Constance Bodine of Union grew up in a Catholic family that said grace every day, but her husband Keith’s family was not religious. When they married and had three children, they had to decide how to incorporate the practice into their life together.

“We had growing pains as we went through it. We used to let the children say their own grace. We even had my second son sing ‘The Battle Hymn of the Republic’ at one dinner, and we said ‘Amen.’ ”

On Thanksgiving, they would go around the table.

“I grew up with just one of us being assigned the Thanksgiving grace, and that was always a lot of pressure, so I wanted to take a step back and have everyone say something,” Bodine said. “They could say a prayer or they could add on to something their brother or sister said.”

Things changed when the family bought a 70-acre farm. They started feeling connected to the land and began to appreciate how what they were growing filled their cupboards. A few years ago, Bodine stumbled across a simple grace that spoke to the farmer in her, and she wrote it down. She doesn’t remember where she saw or read it, but it is now the family’s go-to grace:

“Blessings on the blossoms, blessings on the fruit, blessings on the leaves and stems, blessings on the roots. Loving hands together as we say blessing on our meal and our time together every day.”

Thanksgiving grace has taken on more importance in our culture because fewer families are like the Bodines, gathering together at mealtime every day, Braestrup said. People eat in their cars, or on the run. The holiday has a special resonance, she said, because it’s a feast that’s not tied to any specific religion.

GRACE IN A HYPHENATED WORLD

Reza Jalali of Falmouth, coordinator of Multicultural Student Affairs at the University of Southern Maine, came to the United States from Iran 29 years ago. Thanksgiving is his favorite American holiday, he said, precisely because it is so inclusive. Every year he and his family get together with families from other cultures – India, Kosovo, Turkey, Pakistan – and from different faith traditions (Christians, Muslims, Jews, Hindus), and they fill the table with dishes such as chicken curry, samosas and fesenjaan, an Iranian dish that means “food of life.”

“This is the new America,” Jalali said. “We are hyphenated communities, and it’s really interesting to watch how it’s evolved into this multicultural Thanksgiving where we have the turkey and the mashed potatoes, of course, but in addition every family has brought something from their own culture, their own tradition.”

With so many faiths represented, they had to come up with their own form of grace. They, too, turned to poetry.

One of Jalali’s favorites is a Sufi poem by Rumi in which a stranger in a foreign country wanders in the dark and cold until he comes to a house where he can see people sitting around a fire. They are eating and singing; one looks up and notices the stranger, and calls out:

“Come, come, whoever you are,

Wanderer, idolater, worshipper of fire,

Come even though you have broken your vows a thousand times,

Come, and come yet again.

Ours is not a caravan of despair.”

Jalali says the poem is extending an invitation to anyone who is lost, searching, uprooted or heartbroken. “They don’t care who you are or what faith tradition you belong to, come and join us,” he said. “I love that because it’s so applicable to those of us in displaced communities who are not here by choice.”

Saying grace and other expressions of gratitude cross cultural boundaries because humans crave ritual, Sawyer said.

“To give thanks is one of those things, like coming-of-age rituals passing into death rituals, that you find in all cultures,” he said. “Ritualizing it is a way to make us consciously present that we’re giving thanks. When you make a ritual out of something, then you’re pulling your attention very strongly into the present moment.”

Caitlin Hunter may not say grace at her table every day, but she has found a way to ritualize giving thanks that goes beyond reciting a Thornton Wilder poem. About five years ago, she started raising turkeys at her farm. To instill appreciation among her apprentices for the animal’s sacrifice, “I thank each turkey as we butcher it,” Hunter said. ” ‘Thank you for your life, and you’re a good turkey.’ That’s something we just started doing as a farm.”

This need for ritual may be one reason even nonbelievers will either say grace in their own way or ask someone else to do it. Sawyer is often asked to say a prayer before a meal even though he’s not a minister.

“Sometimes I notice in those situations, they’re hoping that I’ll say a prayer because it feels like one should be said,” he said. “Even people who are not practicing a particular religion almost feel a need to say grace. It’s almost like a calling of the heart. If you say a prayer, then everybody’s mind is in the same place at the same time for a few minutes. I think that’s a real power of that moment of saying grace, is to bring everybody into the same mental space of gratitude.”

GRACE FOR THE NONBELIEVERS

Saying grace can be tricky around some tables, especially if you don’t believe in a supreme being. Many humanists, however, still say a secular or nonreligious “grace” at Thanksgiving, according to Maggie Ardiente of the American Humanist Association.

The organization has come up with its own “prayer” of grace that reads in part: “Today we pause to recognize how fortunate we are and to be grateful for the bounty we share with friends, family and loved ones, be they with us or far away. We take pause to celebrate that we each can and do make meaning for our own lives, by the deeds we do, to make the world a better and a more humane home for all. Every day offers us the opportunity to make a difference not just in our own lives but in the lives of others.”

Doug Bunker of Franklin, a semiretired paper mill worker and atheist who helped organize a group called the Downeast Humanists and Freethinkers, said dealing with the “saying grace” issue can be particularly awkward for people who were once religious but are no longer.

“For the most part, people are very respectful of the traditions that their families maintain, and I think that’s a healthy attitude,” he said. “On the other hand, we expect that same degree of respect for our lack of belief in religion. Sometimes that’s not reciprocated.”

If you’re a nonbeliever and are asked to say grace at the dinner table, Bunker has some advice: “I think it’s important to not only decline, but to express why you’re declining.” Be polite, he said, and consider just sitting quietly while someone else takes on the duty.

If a guest becomes so upset at the thought of saying grace that they get up and storm from the dinner table, leave it alone, Braestrup advises. “If somebody has a really powerful reaction because someone is stopping for a moment of prayer, then we don’t do the prayer,” she said. “Prayer is not an aggressive act.”

Whether you believe in a higher power or not, an important part of giving thanks is recognizing what life has brought you, and letting go of the idea that the world still owes you, Sawyer said.

The professor says he’s noticed that his students’ parents often feel like they’re letting their kids down if they can’t give them everything they want – a giant shift from the generation of Americans who lived through the Depression. The mind will always want more, Sawyer says, but people who don’t know where their next meal is coming from are often profoundly grateful when just basic needs are met.

“Sometimes not getting everything you want is what you need,” Sawyer said.

Gratitude, Braestrup said, means “this didn’t have to happen.”

“I didn’t have to be fed today, but I am fed today, and that’s a really nice thing,” she said. “It’s actually why, in many religious traditions, fasting precedes the feast, so you notice. It’s about noticing.”