34 Most Meaningful Thanksgiving Holiday Traditions Across America
Good traditions are the bedrock of bonding—here are creative, funny, and traditional ideas for your Thanksgiving this year.
Why Thanksgiving traditions are important
Fall can be a wonderful time of year—nearly one-third of Americans say that fall is their favorite season, according to one poll done by YouGov—and a big reason for that are all of the fun traditions that come with it, says Carrie Landin, Psy.D., a psychologist with UCHealth Integrative Medicine Center and a clinical instructor at the University of Colorado, Department of Psychiatry Residency Program. Thanksgiving, as the biggest fall holiday, is the source of many of those traditions.
Thanksgiving traditions bring people together, as a way to help friends and families bond, to feel part of the larger culture, and to give people something to look forward to, she says. (It’s one of the reasons we celebrate “weird” holidays.) “My favorite Thanksgiving tradition is the fact that we have a million Thanksgiving traditions which makes it feel really special,” says Sarah Spedding, of Fullerton, California. “I just got married and I can’t wait to bring some of my family’s Thanksgiving traditions and make some of our own together.”
However, traditions, particularly those that are too time-consuming or expensive or cause stress and anxiety can do more harm than good, Dr. Landin says. This is why it’s important to evaluate which traditions are the most meaningful and fun for your family and ditch any that don’t bring joy.
Start with the basics
Traditions can be as simple as gathering with family, eating pumpkin pie and turkey, playing board games, and watching a parade on TV. After all, they’re classics for a reason! Or your traditions can be totally unique to your family. To help you get started establishing your own meaningful Thanksgiving holiday traditions, we asked people all over the country for their favorites.
Note: This year, holiday traditions may need to be modified or canceled due to the pandemic—here’s what Thanksgiving may look like this year—but it’s also an opportunity to start some new ones, as our readers share below.
Host a P.O.O.P. party
“The day before Thanksgiving, my mom, my sisters, and I spend the day baking pies. Then on Thanksgiving night, my mom hosts a huge party she calls the P.O.O.P. (Pig Out On Pie) Party. Friends, neighbors, family, anyone is invited. We usually make over 50 pies of different varieties. I know it sounds exhausting, and it is, but we love to cook, so it’s a lot of fun for us. My favorite isn’t the party but making the pies with my mom and sisters. We laugh and laugh all day long. It’s the best.”—Diana W., Twin Falls, Idaho
Check out the most delicious pie from every state to get inspired.
Celebrate with the police and firefighters
“Like many first responders, I have to work holidays. (In fact on holidays we often have more calls than normal!) Now I’ve just made it a tradition to work every Thanksgiving. It’s my way of giving back and showing gratitude to my community. I’ll celebrate with my fellow police officers at the patrol and my family will bring me stuff too.” —Scott R., Seattle, Washington
Make the ultimate buffet out of leftovers
“My family gets together the day after Thanksgiving for what we call “The Thanksgiving Challenge.” The four families bring their leftovers and we create the ultimate buffet. Then we play games for the rest of the night. The first game is always Gobble Gobble Bingo. Everyone brings a $20 gift card from the place of their choice and they all get thrown into a bowl. As people win the games through the night, they get first choice of the gift cards. It is fun but we get competitive. We have done this for over 25 years.” —Daryl O., Point Pleasant, New Jersey
Reenact the Charlie Brown Thanksgiving meal
“Ever since I was a kid, on Thanksgiving Day, we watch ‘A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving’ and then re-create the Thanksgiving dinner that Charlie Brown and Snoopy make for their friends: Buttered toast, jelly beans, pretzel sticks, and popcorn. It’s hilarious and a great lunch because it’s small and cute and doesn’t fill us up before our real Thanksgiving feast!”—Sarah S., Fullerton, California
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Create a unique family game
“No one in my whole extended family likes cranberry sauce so we created The Cranberry Rockoff tradition. We gather everyone on Thanksgiving—we have a big family with more than two dozen cousins plus all their spouses and children—and play a giant game of Rock, Paper, Scissors. Each round, the loser advances to the next round. The overall loser is crowned the Official Rockoff Loser and has to eat a bite of chunky cranberry sauce in front of everyone amidst a chorus of gagging noises. There is even an ‘Official Cranberry Rockoff Guide’ put together by the cousins for situations like ‘What to do if someone actually likes cranberry sauce?’ It’s been going for decades and we keep an official record of all Cranberry Rockoff Losers over the years.” —Lisa M., Midland, Texas
Make a dinosaur hunt for kids
“When my son was four he was obsessed with dinosaurs so that Thanksgiving, after dinner, we boiled the turkey bones, dried them, and hid them around the house. We then told him to go on a ‘dinosaur hunt’ to find them all. He loved it so much we’ve continued it as a tradition every year. Now the grandkids get a huge kick out of it and we get all the good memories.” —David J., Westminster, Colorado
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Ring-and-run a meal kit
“Every year we find a family through our local YMCA that needs help and we create a Thanksgiving dinner box. It usually has a turkey, stuffing mix, fruit, rolls, green beans, Jell-O, pumpkin pie, and whipped cream. We also like to put in some Thanksgiving coloring books or games for the kids. We take it to their house, ring the doorbell, and run. Then we go home and have the same meal. It helps us feel grateful for what we have and the kids get a big kick out of it.” —Vince M., Atlanta, Georgia
Have a family sleepover
“After an early Thanksgiving dinner, we clean up, then drag all our mattresses out to the living room. We get comfy and watch movies until late, then we all sleep there together. My kids look forward to it every year, it’s our favorite fun family time.” —Candace J., Edmonds, Washington
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Run a Turkey Trot
“My family and I always run a 5K Turkey Trot on Thanksgiving morning. We get pretty competitive about it but it always ends with laughter and pumpkin pie protein shakes. It’s a win/win—we get some exercise before the feast and we get time to hang out together. We live all over the country and due to plans with in-laws, Thanksgiving is often the only holiday we’re all together for. We always take a family picture wearing our race shirts and medals.” —Seth B., Orlando, Florida
Party like your ancestors
“We have started having a Thanksgiving Day ‘heritage breakfast’ where we eat foods from lands of our family’s heritage. We have a large map of the world, showing where our ancestors came from. We talk about each dish and the children can dress up in traditional clothing and play traditional games. It’s a great tradition that keeps us connected with our family members both present and generations before.” —Chris N., Washington, D.C.
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Paint a special ornament
“My mother-in-law started a tradition where after the Thanksgiving meal is over, we clear the table and set it up for painting Christmas ornaments. Now, I have a hand-painted Christmas ornament on my tree for every year since I’ve gotten married. Looking at them brings back such good memories.” —Lizzy V., Fort Mill, South Carolina
Pass around a Thanksgiving memories journal
“We have a special Thanksgiving notebook. Each year, during Thanksgiving Dinner, we pass it around and everyone writes something. People can write their favorite memory of the year or something they are thankful for or whatever they want. We’ve been doing it for ten years and I love it so much. We get to see notes from loved ones who have passed on and or are absent that year. I love seeing how the kid’s handwriting changes. It’s so special and everyone knows now what to do when the book comes out.” —Leticia S., Spring, Texas
Share inspirational quotes
“It was a big transition when my son got married, expanding our family circle. One of the best things has been all the new traditions new family members bring. My daughter-in-law brought a Thanksgiving tradition from her family where we hand out inspirational quotes about gratitude and everyone takes a turn reading one during the meal.” —Deb B., Lakeville, Minnesota
Toss the pigskin
“I have three sons and one thing we’ve always done on Thanksgiving is to play in the Turkey Bowl our church puts on. Sometimes we’re running through piles of leaves, other times it’s freezing and we’re chasing each other in the snow, but it’s always fun. And it gets their energy out and gives my wife some time alone to cook.” —Paul A., Bridgeport, Connecticut
Light up with gratitude
“Once we are all seated at the Thanksgiving table, before we start eating, we take a minute to light two taper candles in the middle of the table. Each of us has individual candles that we light one at a time from the tapers, saying something we’re thankful for as we do it. It’s a great way to focus on gratitude and how being together as a family contributes to that.” —Elizabeth P., Ridgecrest, California
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Start a pandemic tradition
“This year, because of COVID-19 restrictions, we’re making a new Thanksgiving tradition. My grandpa is going to cook the turkey and then safely deliver portions to each family on Thanksgiving day. We then will give him portions of our side dishes so that he gets a full meal to go with his turkey. It’s not the same as getting together but we still get to do something special that day and everyone stays safe.” —Dayna B., Provo, Utah
Let kids pick and cook side dishes
“I want to spend time with my kids and teach them a new skill so I’ve made a tradition that every Thanksgiving, each child gets to pick a side dish. It doesn’t have to be ‘Thanksgiving food,’ it can be whatever they want. Then we shop for the ingredients and make it together. They’re also more likely to eat it if they helped make it.” —Jeni S., Ithaca, New York
Take a vacation
“Our Thanksgiving tradition is to travel somewhere new. Some of our favorites have been Puerto Rico, Las Vegas, and Arizona (so we can meet up with our in-laws who winter there). I love it because it takes the stress out of the holiday. It is great not having to cook or clean or host!” —Charlene M., St. Charles, Illinois
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Start your holiday baking
“My favorite tradition is to bake all the Christmas cookies the day after Thanksgiving. It’s a full day of cooking but it’s fun doing it with my family. We organize and package them, then we freeze them. Then during the hectic holiday month, we can pull them out to give to friends and family as needed. It really lowers my stress so I can just enjoy Christmas.” —Meredith B., Lakeville, Minnesota
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Visit a disabled relative
“Every year until she passed a few years ago, we had a family tradition of taking my sister, who had a genetic disorder, out for Thanksgiving dinner. We would let her choose what we ate and did. However, even though she was physically an adult, she was mentally about three years old, which meant she would pick some interesting things! Often we’d end up taking her and her friends from her group home to Subway for sandwiches, then to bowling, and end the evening with her favorite 3 Musketeers candy bars.” —Tom H., Eau Claire, Wisconsin
Embrace the food coma
“Naps are a normal Thanksgiving thing but instead of just falling asleep on the couch watching football, we decided to make it the best nap ever. After dinner is over, we bring out pillows, blankets, eye masks, and earplugs and everyone goes to their favorite sleeping spot. Then we turn down the lights and turn off all the electronics. They’re some of the best naps I’ve had in my life. After nap time is pie time.” —Nic A., New York City
Make pie crust cookies
“It’s kind of a small thing but ever since we were little my mom used to give us the leftover pie dough from making her Thanksgiving pies. We’d use it like playdough and shape it into whatever we wanted, including handprints or letters of our names or, one time, a toilet. My mom would dust them with cinnamon sugar and bake them. We’re all adults now but we still do this, my mom even makes extra pie crust dough. I like the pie crust cookies better than the pie!” —Adriana V., Boseman, Montana
Do the dishes in style
“It’s a rule in my house that whoever cooks does not clean up after and that counts extra on holidays. After Thanksgiving dinner, we all ‘fight’ over who gets to clean the kitchen by playing spoons. The winner gets to wear a special apron, tiara, and yellow rubber gloves. They do the dishes and the rest of us help clean. It’s a point of pride now that we get the kitchen absolutely spotless. I think that is my mom’s happiest day of the entire year.” —Alyssa C., Jacksonville, Mississippi
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Toast with cider
“We buy bottles of local cider every year for Thanksgiving—hard, for the adults, and sparkling juice, for the kids. Everyone brings their ‘fanciest’ cup and we take turns toasting to things we are grateful for. It’s always funny to see what people bring. Last year my toddler used her sippy cup, my grandma had a crystal goblet, my sister used her coffee mug, and my husband toasted with a toy teapot.” —Genevieve S., Boston
“Years ago, my sister and I started our own Thanksgiving ritual: After Grandmama’s enormous dinner, we’d go out to the big southern red oak and wait for the wind to blow, which it almost always did there on Thanksgiving. Then we’d tear out after the leaves as they twirled to the ground. According to Appalachian folk wisdom, catching just one was sufficient to ward off a cold for the winter, but we figured the more we caught, the healthier we’d be. These days, after my husband and I clear our table, we take our sons outside under the big red oak and wait for the leaves to dance.” —Lenela G.,
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Go for the gold
“My father organizes what we’ve come to call the Thanksgiving Olympics and all 25 family members and friends who gather at my parents’ house that day participate. Dad plans the games, such as shooting a basketball, pitching pennies in our yard, or doing a word scramble. Everyone’s favorite Thanksgiving Olympics memory is when my mom, who never played a game of basketball in her life, sank all three of her shots. We cheered like crazy. And let’s not forget the prizes. We cover the table with goodies such as a tin of popcorn, a box of chocolates, stationery, and toys for the kids. I am so thankful for my family, but especially for my mom and dad and for everything they do to make the holiday so special.” —Kathleen S.
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Put it on the table
“Every year, each person at the table uses a permanent marker to write one thing he or she is thankful for on the white tablecloth. After Thanksgiving, we wash the cloth on the gentle cycle and put it away until next year, when we bring it out and do the same thing. It’s fun to see how people change, and it’s a powerful way to remind us what the holiday is all about.” —Megan B.
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Take it outside
“The family of my husband started a tradition in 1957 that I thought was crazy when I first heard of it: a picnic. That’s right—turkey and all the trimmings outdoors in the open. Turns out its loads of fun and a welcome breath of fresh air after the summer heat has kept us indoors in air-conditioning. We set up camp along a creek near where we live in Arizona, and friends and family stop by. It seems as if something exciting always happens. There have been rainouts, a flu epidemic, and the unforgettable Thanksgiving of 2000 when the wind blew so hard that tables overturned and the bird flew! The dogs feasted that year.” —Karrie B.
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A beautiful chain
“I’ve improvised a new tradition, the Thanksgiving chain. Each person receives strips of colored paper, on which they write things for which they feel thankful. Then we go around the candlelit table, reading them aloud in turn. After we do, we link our strips to form a paper chain.” —Katherine G.
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“I am one of seven siblings. My oldest brother was the first to marry (almost 40 years ago) and my mother, wise woman that she was, told him not to come home for Thanksgiving, to go and create his own tradition. And so we each did the same and she saved us from having to bounce between multiple family gatherings. Instead, we created ‘Leftovers, Pie and Beer’—the day after Thanksgiving when we all gather (there are 54 of us now) to, you guessed it, eat leftovers and plan our Christmas gathering.” —Melanie F.
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Make a wish
“My grandmother’s sister always made a wish before Thanksgiving dinner. Her wish: ‘We wish we will be all together again next Thanksgiving, maybe just a little better!’ After her passing, my cousins and I continued this wish, and we continue it to this day. “—Angela C.
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Two celebrations in one
“Thanksgiving is always family time. My birthday sometimes falls on Thanksgiving and my Mom would put a big bow on the turkey for me. I have always preferred pumpkin pie to birthday cake no matter if my birthday is on Thanksgiving or not.” —Elizabeth B.
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Spread the love
“We as a family choose a special person from our senior community that we know has no family to share Thanksgiving with and invite them to share our dinner and storytelling. We all sit around the table during dessert and tell a story that made an impact during this year. We take a family picture and include the “new” addition to the family. We pack a basket with leftovers and other goodies. Later we deliver our Thanksgiving picture framed and wrapped.” —Marina K.
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