Thanksgiving traditions are not what they used to be. My childhood Thanksgiving was more formal than today’s version. In some ways, it’s a nice change because it reduces the pressure and stress that can come with a formal occasion. On the other hand, I feel we’ve lost something. But there’s no reason we can’t shift and bring back some old, and select some new, Thanksgiving traditions to start this year.
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Lost Thanksgiving Traditions
Decorating the Thanksgiving table
Thanksgiving was the holiday to pull out the fine china, create festive centerpieces, and deck the table. The air was festive and formal. We had tablecloths just for the occasion that my Mom would pull out, wash and iron, then dress the table. It was complete with place cards at each setting and napkin rings on folded linen. Plates were stacked, silverware polished, and stemware pulled from the highest cabinet shelves was carefully positioned at each seat. The centerpiece in our house was usually floral with an occasional cornucopia or paper turkey. Whatever the design, it was large!
A game of football, either in the yard or at the local high school, was as American as apple pie. Families would bundle up and hit the outdoors while dinner was cooking, out of the kitchen and out of the way, burning calories and working up an appetite. For those who didn’t play, there was sure to be a generations old rivalry at a nearby high school. It was a great way to enjoy the morning, stay out the way while dinner was being prepared, and provided fodder for dinner conversations and revelry. People took their Thanksgiving football seriously.
Thanksgiving greeting cards
You may not remember but Thanksgiving used to be a big holiday for greeting cards. I love this tradition and wish it would return. When you think about it, the holiday is about being thankful. Why not express that in a greeting card? Cards were elaborate, or hand made, and sent to closest family members and friends.
Sharing what you’re thankful for and saying grace
Another formality of the holiday was the pre-meal ceremony. It was tradition for each person at the table to take a turn and share what they were grateful for that year. It was a nod to the history of the holiday and a way to connect with our values and beliefs. This was followed by a formal grace before dinner to further give thanks for the day, family, and the meal to be enjoyed. These traditions forced people to stop and think, be grateful, and focus – even if only for a moment – on what matters most in their life.
A simple Thanksgiving menu
The Thanksgiving Dinner was the same every year and the menu was simple. In many families, the preparation of side dishes and desserts was shared. You would look forward to your aunt’s homemade cranberry sauce or Nana’s pecan pie. Meals were simple and delicious and portions generous.
The kids table
We still have a kids table in our house. We celebrate Thanksgiving for a Crowd every year and the kids table is a must! Any child old enough to feed themselves was relegated to the kids table. They didn’t sit under the watchful eye of their parents. They played, ate their dinner, made a mess and stayed out of their parent’s hair so adults could talk freely and enjoy their time together. It was a right of passage to move to the adult table when your time came.
Breaking of the wishbone
We would fight over who got the opportunity to break the wishbone with my mother. She’d hang it on the timer above the oven to dry. We’d scheme and argue about who would be the lucky one that year. When the time came, Mom would take one side and the winner of the great wishbone drawing would grab the other. The two would make a wish. I’m sure my Mom’s was always for health of her family, or peace in the world, while we wished for some new shiny toy or game. Then they’d pull until it snapped! Whoever had the largest piece was assured fulfillment of his or her wish. Such a fun tradition!
Exchanging family recipes
Thanksgiving recipes were family heirlooms. Every adult wanted to know how to make the gravy or the baked corn, and cooks were glad to oblige. Recipes were hand printed on index cards and shared with guests. Some families created Thanksgiving recipe notebooks filled with worn pages of hand written script and gravy stains. These treasures were passed from one generation to another.
Relaxing after the holiday
Thanksgiving Thursday was often the beginning of a long weekend. Families would spend time together, guests would stay overnight, and the weekend was for lounging. Black Friday shopping existed but it didn’t propel you from Thanksgiving immediately into Christmas. The weekend after Thanksgiving was a sort of slow transition into the Christmas season rather than the launch we feel these days.
For many families, volunteering rather than football was a Thanksgiving tradition. Children and adults alike would prepare food or serve meals at local shelters or other charities. Kids would collect donations to feed the hungry or pass out warm socks in areas with large homeless populations. It was yet another way to pause, be grateful for your blessings, and to give back to those who were in need. In addition, it gave younger people perspective into their own lives and good fortune or struggles.
What are some modern day Thanksgiving Traditions?
As old traditions were lost, new ones sprung up. The focus of the holiday expanded, more towards family and the meal and away from being thankful. Decorating broadened from the table to the home. In a way, the holiday became watered down, generalized. But some of the new Thanksgiving traditions are worth considering as they bring people together.
In many homes, including my own, the formal Thanksgiving dinner is a thing of the past. Families are rushed and getting together can be difficult. It is much more common nowadays to have a casual dinner without the formal place settings and dress. Even candy makers get into the holiday now. This year Brach’s came out with turkey dinner candy corn – candy in the shape of Thanksgiving dinner foods. The positive side of this change is that is easier for people to celebrate with one another. The downside is the risk that the holiday becomes just like any other day.
People come together for “Friendsgiving” now, a Thanksgiving like celebration done on or around Thanksgiving day to enjoy time with friends. We decorate our yards and houses with a myriad of ornamentals and lawn inflatables. For many, watching football on TV while sitting on the couch has replaced playing football or attending a game.
Whatever you chose as Thanksgiving traditions to start this year, I hope you’ll remember, or be reminded of, the foundation of the holiday, giving thanks. Put aside the controversy that surrounds the history of the holiday and don’t let it be subsumed by the earlier and earlier opening of the Christmas shopping season. Reclaim Thanksgiving as a day to be grateful, to express that gratitude, and to share time and a meal with those you love.