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
(Kathy Willens/Associated Press)
(There is an enormous amount of misinformation about the origins of the Thanksgiving holiday as we celebrate it today — including when, how and why it became a tradition in the United States. Here’s the real story, which I published a few years ago and am doing so again.)
What Americans think they know about the history of Thanksgiving doesn’t always square with the truth.
For example, it is generally believed that in 1621, the Pilgrims invited Wampanoag Indians to a feast in Plymouth Colony to celebrate their first harvest, and a good time, with turkey and pumpkin pie, was had by all. Well, maybe, and maybe not.
Historians, including those at Plimoth Plantation, a living museum in Plymouth, Mass., say that they do know there was a feast that year shared by the colonists and Wampanoag Indians, and Squanto, who had learned English, served as translator. But the one historical account of the actual dinner says venison was served and some sort of fowl, but it doesn’t specifically mention turkey. Pumpkin was available, but it is not likely the colonists whipped up a pie. Furthermore, sweet potatoes were unknown to the colonists, and cranberries may have been served but not as a relish.
There’s a lot of misinformation about the Pilgrims, too. American kids learn that the Pilgrims came to the New World in search of religious freedom, and they dressed only in black and white, and wore buckles on their shoes. No, no, and no.
The Pilgrims left Britain in search of religious freedom, but found it in Holland in the early 1600s, where they found a high degree of religious tolerance. The reason they wanted to come to the New World and establish a colony was to preserve their English identity and for economic reasons. Also, they didn’t wear buckles on their shoes, and Pilgrim women dressed in colors, including red, green, blue and violet, while men wore a variety of colors, too.
If you think Americans have been celebrating Thanksgiving annually since 1621, guess again. Nobody at the time thought of it as the start of a new tradition, and there had been similar gatherings elsewhere earlier. Historians know there was another feast in the colony in 1623 — but it was held earlier in the year. Different colonies celebrated their own days of thanksgiving during the year.
In 1789, George Washington declared Thursday, Nov. 26, a Thanksgiving holiday, but only for that year, and it wasn’t connected to the Pilgrim feast but rather intended as a “public thanksgiving and prayer” devoted to “the service of that great and glorious Being who is the beneficent Author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be.”
Enter a 19th century author, poet and magazine editor named Sarah Josepha Hale. She was editor of the influential Godey’s Lady’s Book for 40 years, from 1837 to 1877, when she was nearly 90 years old. She and her husband David Hale had five children, and when he died in 1822, she wore black for the rest of her life. Hale was an education advocate and, through the magazine she edited, became a famous figure in the country who set fashion, reading and cooking trends. Washington Irving Jr., Nathaniel Hawthorne and Oliver Wendell Holmes were among the authors who published work in her magazine. She was also a prolific author, writing dozens of novels and books of poetry, and penned (or co-penned, according to one account) the famous “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” which was published in 1830.
Hale, who was highly patriotic, read about the 1621 feast of the Pilgrims and became captivated with the idea of turning it into a national holiday. She published in the Godey’s Lady’s Book recipes for turkey and stuffing and pumpkin pie and started traditions that had nothing to do with the colonists. She began a lobbying campaign to persuade President Abraham Lincoln to make Thanksgiving an official annual holiday, using her magazine to build public support by writing an editorial every year starting in 1846. She also sent letters to all governors in the United States and territories. In 1863, Lincoln did set Thanksgiving as an official holiday to be celebrated on the fourth Thursday of November every year.
In 1939, President Franklin D. Roosevelt agreed to move the annual Thanksgiving holiday to the third Thursday of November. Why? To help the economy by making the Christmas shopping season a little bit longer. There was so much opposition to the move that two years later he changed it to the fourth Thursday in November.
Then there’s the myth of how the presidential pardon of a turkey started with Abraham Lincoln when his son begged his dad to save the animal. Actually, it didn’t. The tradition goes all the way back in history to … 1989, when President George H.W. Bush officially pardoned the first one. According to a perhaps apocryphal story, in 1863, Lincoln’s 10-year-old son, Tad, supposedly became fond of a turkey given to the family for a holiday feast. Tad named the turkey Jack and begged his father to save the animal. Lincoln did. The only problem with that as a Thanksgiving story is that Tad’s plea was to save the Christmas turkey!
At the 67th anniversary of the National Thanksgiving Turkey presentation on Wednesday, President Obama pardoned two Ohio turkeys that will now live at the home of a former Virginia governor. (AP)
And, finally, you may hear people say that turkey makes them tired. No, it doesn’t. Turkey contains tryptophan, an essential amino acid that is thought to have a sedative effect. As it turns out, turkey doesn’t have any more tryptophan than other foods, including chicken, and even if tryptophan did induce tiredness, there isn’t enough in turkey to do so. So if you are tired after eating Thanksgiving dinner, don’t blame the turkey.