Thanksgiving is a chance for families to gather together, to feast and to enjoy being with one another. But the day can also be a meaningful time to reflect on our blessings and remember how God has been faithful in our lives.
Many families have special traditions they use to show gratitude to God and each other. Thriving Family asked parents to share a cherished tradition that has helped their family experience real gratitude amid the food and fellowship of the holiday.
The Breakfast Club
For our family, Thanksgiving Day begins early, with our family gathered around a card table in the living room to share a special, once-a-year breakfast. Between bites of poppy seed cake and sips of eggnog, we record the year's blessings on notebook paper: landing a new job, reconnecting with old friends, finding a great sale on kids' shoes, earning an A in Spanish. No item is too small for the list.
After we've filled our papers, I reach for our family's Thanksgiving Journal, which contains our lists from the past 30 years. As we sift through the pages, we remember our family's milestones: starting a new business, learning to play an instrument, hitting the home run that won the baseball championship. Tears and laughter flow freely as we read about a 4-year-old's gratefulness for a new bicycle, the swing set we inherited from a family at church, our first dog and memories of loved ones who have since passed away.
Shortly after breakfast, the turkey goes in the oven, the card table transforms into a puzzle area and the guests begin to arrive. But the heart of our Thanksgiving happens before the busyness of the day — when we add the year's memories to a growing collection of God's blessings.
A Tree of Thanks
On my side of the family, sentiments are usually kept to oneself, so when we planned to spend Thanksgiving at my mother's place a few years back, I knew my siblings and their spouses wouldn't be comfortable participating in traditions where vocal expressions of gratitude were required. So I decided to try an idea from a kids' craft project, modified for my family.
From brown construction paper, I cut out the trunk and branches of a tree and taped it to the wall. Then I made leaves out of red, yellow and orange paper. I handed out the leaves to my siblings, their spouses and their kids, asking them to write something they were thankful for on each leaf. I told them they didn't need to write their name on it unless they wanted to.The kids were the most enthusiastic, with most of them quickly scribbling down one or two items. The adults were reluctant at first, but once they started reading the other leaves, they all wrote down at least one thankful thought. I was surprised to see some leaves with detailed, heartfelt lists, and a few relatives filled more than one leaf!
Several weeks later when I went to visit my mom, I was surprised to see the Thanksgiving tree still taped to the wall. Mom told me she enjoyed looking at it so much that she couldn't bear to take it down.
Tablecloth of Memories
My family's favorite Thanksgiving tradition began in November 2001. I was hosting the big dinner only weeks after the 9/11 attacks. Like many Americans, we were still in shock, still hurting. We kept thinking about all the families around the country whose Thanksgiving dinners would never be the same.
As we finished our meal that year, I brought in a package of fabric pens. I asked our family and guests to write something on the tablecloth that they were thankful for. Everyone took turns writing short notes on the cloth, and we have continued to bring out the pens every year. Notes of love for family, our country and our God are arranged in an intricate puzzle across the light yellow cloth. Children's handprints are tucked in next to earnest messages of gratitude, while Great-Grandma Cusumano's shaky writing holds a special place in the center of the mosaic.
The tablecloth has become precious to our family. Every November, my children request the honor of putting out the tablecloth, just like they ask to put the angel on top of our Christmas tree. When Thanksgiving Day arrives, our guests smile and laugh as they read through the memories, while the children search to find their handprints, thrilled to see how much they've grown.
When the guests have gone home and the dishes have been put away, I take a few moments for a tradition of my own: reading the special messages left behind by my family and friends. Not all of our family members are present every year, but their words remain on the cloth, reminding me to say a prayer of thanks for each one of them.
—Joanne Kraft, from her book Just Too Busy
A Little Perspective
Thanksgiving has always been a wonderful time for our family, filled with an abundance of awesome food and meaningful memories made together. So when our church started collecting food for needy families, we felt compelled to join in. At the grocery store, our kids raced around grabbing cereals and holiday treats while my husband and I gathered more substantial items. We checked out with a full cart, dropped off the bags at church and felt good for helping the needy.
Right before Thanksgiving, when the church announced it didn't have enough people to deliver the food, my husband, Jim, volunteered our family. We were less than enthusiastic. It was one thing to run through the store throwing food in a cart, but quite another to dedicate our holiday to delivering groceries. Nevertheless, early Thanksgiving morning, we climbed into our van, picked up the boxes of food from church and rode in silence to the first address on our list, in a part of town we usually avoided.
When a man opened the door, Jim offered him the box of food and explained that we wanted to show his family the love of Christ. The man called to his wife and kids, who came to admire the turkey and big box of food on their table. The children pulled items from the box and hopped around the kitchen in delight. As we left, the father said he'd been out of work for a while, and he believed that God had sent us.
After the last delivery, we piled back into the van and drove home, talking about our unique Thanksgiving experience. During our own dinner, we still laughed and stuffed ourselves with food. But it seemed that the usual expressions of thanks came from a deeper place in our hearts.
Bread of Blessings
As a child, I always looked forward to Thanksgiving. Not because of the turkey or the fact that it sometimes fell on my birthday, but because of the rolls.
Thanksgiving morning, Mom made delicious Parker House rolls and placed a small slip of paper with a silly fortune in the middle of each one. At Thanksgiving dinner, family members read their fortune out loud when they opened their roll.
Years later, I decided to continue the tradition — with a biblical twist. I typed Scriptures on small pieces of paper, tucking them in the rolls in the same way my mother had once done. Now our meals are filled with promises of God's goodness until the last roll disappears from the basket.
Part of the Thanksgiving Series
This article first appeared in the October/November 2011 issue of Thriving Family magazine and was originally titled "Expressions of Thanks." If you enjoyed this article, read more like it in Thriving Family, a marriage and parenting magazine published by Focus on the Family. Get Thriving Family delivered to your home by subscribing to it for a gift of any amount.
Copyright © 2011 by Letitia Suk, Donna Brennan, Joanne Kraft, Jeannie Voge and Sally Jadlow. Used by permission.
Next in this Series: Give Thanks
Perfect for journals, writing centers, bell work, or discussion! Try some of these with your students:
- Pretend you are a very smart and special turkey. You can both understand English and write (you type with your beak)! Write a letter to Americans to convince them NOT to eat turkey for Thanksgiving.
- Make a Top 10 list of things that you are thankful for in your life.
- Most stores used to be closed on Thanksgiving, with many opening early on Friday for the first of the holiday sales. Now, some stores are having their sales on Thanksgiving Day. Do you think this is a good idea or a bad one? Write a paragraph supporting your viewpoint.
- You get to write the script for your favorite TV show’s Thanksgiving episode! Write a summary of the plot of the episode you would write. Or, for a longer project, write the actual script.
- Write an acrostic poem for one of these words: TURKEY, THANKSGIVING, GRATEFUL, FAMILY.
- How was the first Thanksgiving different from the Thanksgivings we celebrate today? In what ways are they the same?
- Write about a special Thanksgiving tradition in your family.
- Would you prefer to have a small Thanksgiving dinner with just your immediate family or attend a large dinner with lots of extended family and friends? Why?
- Explain Thanksgiving to a person from another country who has never heard of it.
- Many Thanksgiving hosts set up a “children’s table” where all of the children are seated for the meal. As a child yourself, would you rather sit at the children’s table or have the children and adults all together at one table? Why?
- Would you have preferred to be a pilgrim or a Native American? Why?
- Pretend you were at the first Thanksgiving as a pilgrim. Write a journal entry about your day.
- How would Thanksgiving be different if it was celebrated in August instead of November?
- In what ways do you think Thanksgiving will be different 50 years in the future?
- You have been given a pet turkey. How will you take care of it?
- Write a descriptive paragraph about your favorite Thanksgiving dish. Use lots of sensory details.
- What is your favorite part of Thanksgiving? Why is it your favorite?
- The newspaper headline is: Turkeys Escape from Turkey Farm Just Days Before Thanksgiving. Write the story.
- What does being thankful mean to you?
- Write about a special Thanksgiving memory.