Wednesday, November 11, 2020

Simple Thankful Celebrations

Thanksgiving is waddling ever closer and life, for many, is still in a state of lock-down or restricted limbo. If you are use to celebrating with a large crew in tow, this year may be a hard adjustment. Or, perhaps, you usually abide by simpler more intimate holiday celebrations. I have been in both boats, mostly the second one, for the bulk of my adult life.

Growing up, I was surrounded by a very large family. Holidays were a bustle and the meals were a feast. When I married and moved west 28 years ago I had to leave all of that behind. Some years our home bustled with friends or family who happened to be close for a season. But mostly, none have ever compared to the vast display I had known in my younger years.

I missed it so.

Thus began my mission.

My first Thanksgiving away was intimate. Husband and I and a couple of roasted Turkey thighs with trimmings. It was quaint. By year two, however, we longed for the bustle and so, invited friends to join in. With guest contributions and a determination to fill every single gap with all the old favorites from my childhood, the counters and tables were consumed with an array of goodies.

Every year since, the guest list has fluctuated. Kids have been added. Houses have changed. One thing has stayed the same: BIG meals. Hubby brags to visitors with great animation as he relays the spread we enjoy every Thanksgiving (and Christmas and Easter). 

But more than food is the company. Growing up (and on the occasions we have enjoyed guests) there was always the buzz of talk, trading recipes, and playing games. As more moves and life situations prompted less Thanksgiving guests and more isolated celebrations, I knew I had to once again get creative. Perhaps it has been for such a time as this.

With the continued restrictions on gatherings and travel in some areas, I recognize that many are faced for the first time with the daunting task of making holidays meaningful with a much smaller gathering. Here are a few ideas I have worked up over the years to keep Thanksgiving from being just another day and instead celebrated and commemorated as the wonderful occasion it is.

Go Ahead, Cook All The Food!   

If you like to cook, COOK! I know it isn't for everyone. But still, if you are used to all the trimmings, have them anyway. Ask Aunt Karen for that Carrot Salad recipe she always brings (I'm sure she'd welcome the phone call!) and reach out to Grandma Dorothy for all her tips and tricks on making the perfect turkey. Splurge on the ingredients and go all out, breaking out the serving platters and setting up the buffet. 

My reasoning.... the time cooking up to and on Thanksgiving, buys me time for decorating on the days after!! I can throw myself into Christmas decor all weekend knowing all I have to do is re-heat leftovers and serve them on some Chinette. AND, essentially, the money you spend on the meal is the same as you would spend on dinners for the amount of days leftovers will buy you.... only you cook once and eat a bunch!!

On that same note, DON'T cook what no one in your household likes! In my home, NONE of us like jellied cranberries so, unless grandma, who likes them, is coming over, we don't buy them!!! There is no sense in having a dish that won't be eaten. It is OK to change up the menu! As a matter of fact, our first year in missions work we weren't able to get a turkey but someone had given us deer.... we had deer stew and pumpkin pie!!!! I reasoned that the Pilgrims had deer.... (and eel and turkey...) so it was still patriotic!

All Hands On Deck

Hold a family meeting and start with this question, "What makes Thanksgiving meaningful to you". You can follow up with questions such as, "What dishes... traditions... would you like most to have?" Be sure to keep a piece of paper on hand and jot down everyone's input.... don't neglect asking Hubby, he will have definite thoughts too. 

As my kids grew and changed we would revisit these family meetings to address transforming ideas. Once they were old enough to take over simple dishes I began asking what ONE dish they would like to make for Thanksgiving. They would be in charge of that dish for dinner. I would supervise and provide the resources but they would do the work. It not only taught them how to cook that dish but it also gave them an opportunity to learn responsibility in contributing to the meal!

Also have them help with table and buffet set up as well as straitening up for dinner (as if company was coming). Give everyone breaks and free-time, but DO also include them in the process of making Thanksgiving stand out, regardless of the roll-call when dinner is served.

Make Dinner Stand Out  

(We don't drink wine but we do buy sparkling cider for the holidays, it is non-alcoholic)

I set the table with my best tablecloth, place-mats, cloth napkins, candle sticks and so on. We make it look like a fancy 5-star restaurant only it is home! I place butter dishes and gravy boats out and the buffet always looks fancy as well with silk flowers and more candlesticks. 

To add to our tablescape, I like to make special place cards and/or napkin rings. When the kids were small we considered it a school project the week of Thanksgiving. TP tubes and construction paper and a table full of raffia and unpopped popcorn and other miscellany would always add pizazz to their project! Now that they are older I have gone for more mature embellishments. You can visit this blog post, "Keep It Simple", for a pictorial step-by-step of floral place card holders using Dollar Store supplies and inexpensive scrapbook paper.

As part of the ambiance and wanting to make sure everyone really feels as though this isn't just another meal, NO ONE is allowed to come to the table unless they are dressed nice. I don't require ties (though that would be classy too) but I do expect nice attire. Hubby and son usually don a button-up and the girls and I find a nice dress or classy blouse, put on jewelry and fix our hair. It may seem trivial but how we dress really affects our perception.

Direct Dinner Conversation and Post-dinner Activities

Perhaps your family does great at dinner convo.... but if bodily functions or gaming and superhero references threaten to consume an enjoyable meal, spark some collective conversation. We like to do Thankful Fors at dinner which always lead down rabbit trails of hearty discussion and keep us all engaged together. You can also discuss Christmas season plans, wish lists or play a game of "Would you Rather" while you eat.

As far as activities, when a crowd is expected everyone just seems to find a niche and the time flies. Kids want to share their toys with cousins and friends, teens want to talk the latest movie or try to best each other in games and adults catch up on work and pass-times. When you suddenly find yourself void of all these additional distractions you will be surprised how loud those crickets are pre and post dinner. Suggestion? Have a plan.

Now, don't make such a strict plan that it is stifling, but, discuss with hubby and perhaps the older kids what you might like to do after dinner.  Plan games or a walk or a movie (we may try this game this year from Samantha Shank at Learn in Color). We started a tradition our first year with just Hubby and I and kids of watching "The Santa Clause". We check the first one off our holiday movie list on Thanksgiving and then watch each sequel on the two subsequent weeks as a family movie night! 

Filling this pre and post dinner time with fun activity will help keep the day memorable and special. It will also help make missing the 'norm' a little bit easier to bear.

Plan the Day   

As mentioned, planning various points of your day can be helpful. More than general ideas of what to do before or after dinner, specifics can help even an intimate setting go more smoothly and be more relaxed. When company is coming (or you are going) you always have a plan. 'Turkey goes in at 7, watch the Parade at 8, prep potatoes at noon....' Just because it is you and household doesn't mean plans go out the window! 

For years I have used the above planner to help me stay on track. The week-of plan page in particular has been invaluable. Next week I will share a bit more about my detailed food prep plans. Plan the timing of food prep, note where you will need help and if kids are contributing, and roughly plan out post dinner activity. I promise, it will relieve so much stress.

Start a New Tradition      

It is never too late to start new traditions. Perhaps try a family craft or singing songs together or playing a certain game. Instead of lamenting what is lost, focus energy on trying something new!

In Times Such As These   

If you are unable to be with loved ones because of restrictions, try these points to feel closer together:

  • Everyone shoot for dinner at the same time so, even though you aren't "together" you can feel united.
  • Exchange recipes so each of you has a full set of holiday favorites (recipe card printables below!)
  • Skype/Face Time/Zoom call at an agreed-upon time, perhaps just after dinner or while the turkey roasts. If after dinner, you can play a trivia game or share "I'm Thankful fors..."



Change is hard, especially during a typically family-packed holiday. But it can also be a motivator to try new things and enjoy new experiences. The Apostle Paul encourages us not to be anxious. After prayer AND thanksgiving he challenges us to recognize the Peace of God which is beyond human understanding and guards our hearts and minds. We can't focus on what isn't or what we can't.... instead, we must draw our attention to what is and what we can.

Do not be anxious about anything,
but in every situation, by prayer and petition,
with thanksgiving,
present your requests to God.

And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding,
will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

- Philippians 4:6-7 -

You've Got This! Even in the midst of unexpectedly simple thankful celebrations! If you have any tips or ideas for celebrating 2020 style, please leave comments and suggestions below!

Blessings for this Thanksgiving season!



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