It was the early 2000s, and my new husband and I were a little nervous about spending our first Thanksgiving away from our families. John had recently been laid off from his sweet gig at Comcast, and living on my measly editor’s salary made no allowances for travel, let alone flying and renting a car to trek from Colorado to central Illinois.
Luckily, two of our best buddy-couples were in the same boat, so we gathered ourselves up for a great feast of fun and games, traditional foods tweaked with new and imaginative interpretations, and best of all—no family baggage. Sure, we resembled the 30-something cast of the then-hit TV show “Friends,” but we revelled in pure joy and felt truly thankful. We raised the bar for what a truly happy Thanksgiving should feel like.
Fast-forward 10 years, and it seems like we are in the same boat we were in in our 30s. Relying on one salary and trying hard to avoid unnecessary expenses, a long-distance, extravagant extended-family Thanksgiving is out of the question. The one major difference from back then is that we are now a family of three. Though a festive friends Thanksgiving sounds like great fun to my husband and me, our son craves something a little more family oriented with someone in the 10-and-under range.
So how do we break away from family without breaking any hearts? It turns out it’s a lot easier than it sounds.
Creating New Traditions
This year we are sharing Thanksgiving with my Aunt and my younger sister and her family for a much smaller holiday celebration. My son gets to play with his two cousins and I get to share valuable sister time without having to deal with extended-family dramas. And the best part is we can break free of rigorous checklists and meal requirements to create new traditions and a more whimsical meal.
So what traditions do you keep and what do you set aside for your smaller Thanksgiving holiday? Think about what you really loved from your childhood Thanksgivings. What foods and practices do you want to keep as part of your holiday family fabric? What could you live without? You absolutely shouldn’t feel despondent that you aren’t putting mini-marshmallows on top of the sweet potato casserole—or that you aren’t even serving sweet potatoes. This is your Thanksgiving and your time. You can always go back to the mini-marshmallows next year.
Look at all your old family holiday traditions and ask: Is this what I want for myself? Does this make me happy, or does it bring on bad feelings? If a tradition makes you feel good inside, keep it. If it feels like an obligation, out it goes.
Traditions for Your Tribe
Aside from breaking away from the traditional turkey, stuffing and green bean casserole dinner, here are some other family fun Thanksgiving ideas you can try out with your tribe.
- Using an inexpensive white tablecloth, set each place setting with a different color permanent marker. Have everyone write down what they are thankful for with the year (have younger kids who can’t yet write dictate their message or draw a picture). Each year, pull out the tablecloth and add new messages! If you don’t have a tablecloth, use poster board for a wall of thanks.
- Cranberry game: fill a mason jar with fresh cranberries and let everyone have a guess at the number. At the end of the evening, count the berries. Whoever comes closest wins a prize (maybe not having to clean up).
- Volunteer a few hours of time. Contact your local church, Salvation Army or homeless shelter and find out when and where they might need a some extra hands for Thanksgiving. Whether packing boxes of food at a distribution center, prepping ingredients or serving up plates for those in need, giving of yourself is one of the greatest family traditions you can participate in.
- Family flag football. After dinner but before dessert, get everyone outside to play a quick game of flag football with a Nerf-style ball. The fresh, cool air and exercise will get everyone’s blood flowing and send away any sluggishness. If the weather is truly forbidding, a game of freeze-dance is always a blast!
- Make Friday a family day. Instead of heading out into the throngs of shoppers on Black Friday, stay at home and play board games, watch movies and make holiday cookies. Extend your Thanksgiving and spend it truly enjoying one of the most important things you are grateful for… your family.