26 Meaningful Thanksgiving Traditions You’ll Want to Try
Good traditions are the bedrock of bonding—here are creative, funny, and meaningful Thanksgiving traditions to start this year.
Why Thanksgiving traditions are important
Thanksgiving traditions are more than just about having a good time. People are social creatures and doing Thanksgiving activities brings people together, says Carrie Landin, Psy.D., a psychologist with UCHealth Integrative Medicine Center. Traditions are a great 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.
However, traditions, particularly those that are too time-consuming or expensive or cause stress and anxiety can do more harm than good, Landin says. Thanksgiving activities don’t have to be complicated to be fun and meaningful! This is why it’s important to evaluate which traditions your family most treasures and ditch any that don’t bring joy. Thanksgiving traditions can range from sharing your reasons to be thankful and watching Thanksgiving movies to singing Thanksgiving songs or hosting a Friendsgiving and reciting Thanksgiving quotes.
Host a pie party
Homemade pies are a Thanksgiving staple but they can be a lot to make on your own. To spread out the work and spend more time with loved ones, host a pie party the day before Thanksgiving. Invite friends or relatives over to make pies together then each of you gets to take home a couple of freshly made confections. It’s one of the most fun Thanksgiving activities and the next day all you have to do is pop it in the oven! No time to bake from scratch? Pick up a pumpkin pie at Costco.
Say thank you to emergency workers
Not only do firefighters, police officers, EMTs, and medical staff not get holidays off but they often have even more work than usual. Show your gratitude for their hard work on Thanksgiving by bringing in a plate of some smoked turkey, a plate of pumpkin pie, or any of these items from the ultimate Thanksgiving menu, along with a sincere card.
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Run a Turkey Trot
Sign up for a local 5k run Thanksgiving morning. You get to spend time together, have fun, and burn some serious calories before the big meal. Make it fun with turkey hats or funny t-shirts. Make sure to take a fun photo at the finish line with everyone wearing their medals then post it on social media with one of these funny Thanksgiving captions.
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Record favorite family stories
Part of what makes Thanksgiving memorable is family and this holiday is the perfect time to pass down family-favorite stories to the next generation. Do you have an ancestor that came over on the Mayflower? Or was a Native American who attended that first Thanksgiving? Or perhaps you share the time grandpa caught his pants on fire during Thanksgiving dinner, thanks to a misplaced candle. Record the stories to keep precious family memories.
Reenact the Charlie Brown Thanksgiving meal
This is a great Thanksgiving tradition to do with little children. Watch “A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving” together 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 fun and makes a good light lunch to keep small snackers happy until the feast. These Thanksgiving crafts for kids will also help keep little hands busy.
Break the wishbone
Many families play the game of having two people grab an end of the turkey wishbone and then pull until it snaps. Thanksgiving tradition says that whoever gets the bigger piece gets to make a wish that will come true. But why stop there? Give everyone a chance to share a beautiful wish they have.
Donate a Thanksgiving dinner
A powerful way to remember your own blessings is to help someone else in need. Not everyone has time to volunteer at a food bank, however. Many grocery stores, community centers, churches, and other public places offer an option to buy a Thanksgiving meal kit for a family in need. Or you can make your own Thanksgiving dinner box with items like a turkey, stuffing mix, fruit, rolls, green beans, Jell-O, pumpkin pie, and whipped cream. Consider including a handwritten Thanksgiving blessing to add a special touch. Take it to the home of someone you know needs it, ring the doorbell, and run.
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Decorate a keepsake tablecloth
Get a plain, sturdy plastic tablecloth or cover the Thanksgiving table in butcher paper. Place markers, stickers, crayons, and stencils around the table. Guests can doodle while they’re waiting to eat or write what they’re grateful for or leave love notes for each other. It’s a great way to keep little hands occupied. You can keep it to reuse throughout the holidays when you need a little cheer.
Make a gratitude garland
Paper chains aren’t just for countdowns! Cut out thin strips of colorful paper and ask friends and family to write something they are grateful for. Tape or staple each strip into a loop, interlocking with the next paper loop, until you have a beautiful chain. Use the garland to decorate the table or hang it over the door for a beautiful reminder of all your blessings.
Paint a special ornament
Crafts are a great Thanksgiving activity to pass the time while you’re waiting for your food to digest and they keep children entertained. Buy some simple glass or plastic ball ornaments and some acrylic markers. Let people write something they are grateful for that year, along with the date.
Start a Thanksgiving journal
Get a special notebook reserved just for Thanksgiving. Pass it around the table during the big meal and ask each person to write something they are grateful for and/or a happy memory they have of Thanksgiving. Little ones can draw a picture. Be sure to have each person write their name and age. Over the years it will become a treasured heirloom and memory book.
Toss the pigskin
Playing or watching football is a classic Thanksgiving tradition. Playing a game of touch or flag football before the meal can help you work up a good appetite while tossing a football around after dinner is a great way to digest your food. Either way it’s fun for the whole family. Or turn on one of the big games traditionally hosted on Thanksgiving day and cheer on your favorite team together. These are more favorite Thanksgiving games to play.
Light gratitude candles
Use this simple object lesson to show how gratitude is most beautiful when it’s shared! Dim the room and hand out a small candle to each person at the Thanksgiving table. Start by saying something you are grateful for while you light your candle. The person next to you then shares what they are grateful for and lights their candle from yours. Eventually, the room is lit up with happy thoughts. You can place the candles in a centerpiece as part of your Thanksgiving table decor or blow them out. Use electric candles for young children.
Share a plate
Have a neighbor or relative eating solo this year? Whether it’s out of necessity or preference, many people end up alone on Thanksgiving. Help them feel loved and remembered by making a plate of Thanksgiving dinner food and delivering it to them. They’ll enjoy your company and/or thoughtfulness as much as the food.
Let your child choose and cook a side dish
Children love to “help” in the kitchen and Thanksgiving is the perfect time to start teaching them how to make traditional family foods and learn basic cooking skills. Beforehand, ask your child to choose a side dish they’d like to make—it doesn’t have to be limited to “normal” Thanksgiving food. Help them shop for ingredients, prep it, and cook it. Bonus: Picky kiddos are more likely to eat it if they helped make it!
Have a movie marathon
Sometimes the only thing you can do after a Thanksgiving meal is to sit on the couch. Make it into a fun movie night by choosing a family holiday classic film or branching out with a new holiday movie. You can make a tradition to watch at least one movie that is the same each year.
Craft a Thanksgiving wreath or centerpiece
Send the kids out to collect colorful leaves, pinecones, pretty rocks, feathers, flowers, or whatever else they can find. You supply the foam base, glue gun, and twine (and the supervision). Let them create the most spectacular door wreath or, if it won’t hang, a table centerpiece.
Take a vacation
For many people, the holidays are a time of extreme stress and conflict. They can also trigger painful memories of past traumatic events. If the traditional big dinner and family reunion is too much, give yourself some grace and start a new tradition by going on a vacation somewhere. Perhaps a beach or to the mountains, anywhere you find calming. You’ll come back refreshed and ready to face the rest of the holiday season.
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Play a family game
Classic board games, online trivia competitions, or card games—there’s a game every family will love. After dinner is the perfect time to revive the ongoing spoons competition or chess tournament. Or you can try a new game that might become the family favorite for next year.
Decorate to-go boxes for the food pantry
Many community shelters and food banks spring into action for Thanksgiving day, serving a traditional, hot meal to anyone in need. One way you can help is to decorate the to-go containers they generally use to hand out the food. At least a week in advance, pick up the containers then decorate them with Thanksgiving pictures, quotes, or loving messages. Then return them to the food pantry. It may not feel like much but little notes of encouragement can really make someone’s day.
Embrace the food coma
Fact: You’re going to want to nap after eating your Thanksgiving feast. So you might as well make it the best nap possible. Give guests pillows and blankets and encourage them to create cozy nap nests. Hand out eye masks and earplugs, pull the curtains, and drift off to dreamland. Dishes can wait.
Make thank-you cards
Thanksgiving is all about giving thanks and chances are, during the holiday season you’ll need to write and send at least a few thank-you notes. Get prepared and start a beautiful tradition by setting up a notecard station. Supply blank cards and envelopes, postcards, colored paper, markers, stickers, stamps, or other fun supplies so your guests can craft their own thank-you cards. They can leave the inside blank to fill in and send at a later date (perhaps to thank you for hosting Thanksgiving!).
Host a Friendsgiving
Family can be great at Thanksgiving but sometimes they aren’t available or you’d prefer to celebrate with other loved ones. Start an annual “Friendsgiving” by inviting friends who also aren’t celebrating with family. Sometimes the best family is the one you create!
Buy bottles of local cider—hard, for the adults, and sparkling juice, for the kids. Pass out fancy cups and glasses or, for more fun, ask each person to bring their own funny beverage container. Then raise your goblets, Best Dad mugs, and sippy cups, and toast to what you’re grateful for. Give each person an opportunity to make their own toast.
Make it a Thanksgiving picnic
In many parts of the country, Thanksgiving is still warm enough to be outside but not so cold that it’s miserable. Enjoy the mild temps by making your traditional feast into a picnic. Choose a spot special to your family or try something new. You can make it as fancy or as simple as you like and it makes cleanup a lot easier. Afterward, you can play beach volleyball, toss a frisbee, or take a stroll through the park—since you’re already there.
Have a leftover buffet
Thanksgiving leftovers are the gift that keeps giving. If you still have family in town the day after Thanksgiving, host a buffet of leftovers. Pull out anything and everything, set it up on the counter, and encourage creative concoctions. Stuffing and cranberry sauce on sandwiches? Why not! You don’t have to cook and it’s a fun post-Thanksgiving activity.
- 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.