With each passing day, it is becoming clearer and clearer that whatever hopes we had for a Thanksgiving gathering that looked and felt familiar are quickly dwindling.
Yet one more bitter disappointment in a year that has exacted so much.
Despite our fatigue, this is a year that asks us to access our creativity. This is not a bad thing. But it is a hard thing to do alone. So let’s do it together. Re-imagine what it takes to honor an origin story.
As a point of reference, in the Jewish tradition, the shared celebration for origin story honoring happens in the spring at a Passover Seder. It is a meal that re-enacts the story of a people. I don’t know about you, but I can’t recall a Thanksgiving meal involving any recognition of it being an origin story holiday or meaningful reflection on the lives of our ancestors.
Maybe it is time.
The prominent question Jews ask each other is, “Why is this night different from all other nights?” It is a serious question—one that is answered four times. What if 2020 became the year that families began to ask, and answer, “How is the Thanksgiving meal different from all other meals?”
Since we will likely be with the smallest version of our family, many of us are already asking ourselves: How will this day feel special and not like every other day?
I have collected 12-plus ideas for your consideration.
My audience is families with young children. The orchestration and production of large meal, large gathering holidays is typically not a particularly relaxing time during the years that our children are the most dependent on us for co-regulation. In fact, high-pressure holidays are reliably stressful to the degree that they are incongruent with the development needs of young children.
So, check out these flexible ideas for marking the occasion in ways that we don’t always have enough time to slow down for.
This actually stands to be one of the more child-friendly Thanksgivings in memory.
- Choose some tunes. This day needs mood music right from the get-go. Whether it’s Vince Guaraldi Trio, Leslie Odom Jr.’s new album, Celtic Holiday, or a Pentatonix playlist, music is a must. Share your playlists by texting a hyperlink to the folks you are missing most: “Here’s what we’re listening to today—what about you?” It might help us feel a bond if we are listening to the same music in different households.
- Involve children in the creation of a table centerpiece. Depending on their ages, curate a collection of optional materials (tiny pumpkins, persimmons, pomegranates, pinecones, cranberries, bouquets of sticks) ahead of time, but let them choose and decide how they want it to look on the table. Weave in some symbolism from the 17 Greetings of Thanks from the Haudenosaunee Thanksgiving Address. If children are not part of your day, give yourself permission to do something a little extra.
- Invite “inanimate guests” such as stuffed animals or framed photos of people. Help your inanimate guests get ready for the festivities with bowties or party hats and remind them of their table manners.
- Ask children to be in charge of what it means to get fancy, to be dressed up, follow their lead. Let them pick out not just their own party attire, but yours as well.
- Prepare a special “meal” for any pets in the home, served with a flare of fanfare.
- Teach your kids the Art of Toasting, complete with raising and clinking glasses for a “cheers.” Pick up some child-friendly wine glasses—eco-friendly, if possible, please!—and sparkling juice for the toast. If you toast someone who is not present, consider recording it and texting it to them. Patiently humor children who toast things that might seem silly, for example, toasting a pet, rather than their teacher.
- Clarify a meal prep and clean up strategy ahead of time. Don’t leave it up to chance—the possibility of resentment is too high. What will the division of labor be for meal prep and clean up? Write it down. *See number 13.
- Brainstorm a title for the Annual Afterdinner Activity. It could be a post-meal stroll or a real-deal hike, a nap or football game (watching or playing), a scavenger hunt or a fire bowl. The important part is that someone says, “It’s time for our ____________!”
- Claim a portion of the day for writing any overdue thank-you cards, complete with kids’ drawings. Have cards and stamps ready to pull out ahead of time. Or, devote that portion of the day to writing the Year in Review Letter that many families include in with their holiday card. Don’t skip this year. Even if it wasn’t a joyride, this has been an historic year and you will appreciate the time capsule that these letters are. There were still a year’s worth of firsts and momentous family events!
- Initiate a family conversation about #GivingTuesday and child-led philanthropy. Where will you make charitable donations of any size this giving season, such as social or environmental justice mission-driven organizations? Encourage your children to help you decide. If they are too young, research where you can make a donation that is relevant to the kind of world you want for them. Don’t worry about the size of the donation—the real gift is bringing up children who think of others, and sharing with them the logic of how you decide. Name an amount, say $100, and ask yourself, should we give this all to one nonprofit organization, or how might we divide it among several worthy initiatives?
- Invest some time in cultivating family history trivia (living generations as well as ancestors), childhood storytelling, perusing photo albums, watch old home videos, making new home videos, and acknowledging the whole year’s worth of birthdays!
- Prepare portions of your meal to deliver safely to a family member, friend, or neighbor…or perhaps a coworker who lives alone. Have some containers ready to go so as you clean up from your meal you can make single servings for drop-off. Then drop them off.
- Record the things you choose to include in a designated notebook that can be brought out year after year, like a recipe book, or a family Haggadah.
P.S. There will be a spectator-less Macy’s Parade this year, and a football game, and a Dog Show, apparently.
A historical review of Thanksgiving:
1621: What if I told you that the roughly 50 survivors of the Mayflower held a harvest meal, an event regarded as America’s “first Thanksgiving,” but that the Wampanoag were never invited? This story is much more complex and nuanced than we have been led to believe for going on 400 years now. There is no historical documentation that the Wampanoag were included or expressly thanked by the Pilgrims at this meal.
1789: President George Washington proclaims November 26, a Thursday, a holiday of Thanksgiving referencing the success of the Revolutionary War, but not invoking the Pilgrims and Indians narrative.
1863: The writer Sarah Josepha Hale persuaded President Lincoln that a Thanksgiving holiday on the same day in all states was needed to help heal the divided nation following the Civil War and a proclamation made it official, but did not invoke the Pilgrims and Indians narrative.
1963: President John F. Kennedy’s Thanksgiving Proclamation 3560 invokes the Mayflower origin story and cements the “Pilgrims found themselves in a vast, untouched land held for them by divine providence” narrative.
2020: We ask ourselves: How is this meal different from all other meals? How is this year different from all other years?