Thanksgiving is more than just a feast

On the first “Thanksgiving Day” in 1621, the Pilgrims and Wampanoag probably ate wildfowl, venison, and products made from corn grain, such as bread. In 1863, President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed a national Thanksgiving Day to be held each November, and, at that time, our country desperately needed a day of thanks to unite us during a time of extreme strife. The original harvest celebration between the Native Americans and the settlers has become a symbol of giving thanks for the gifts we have and celebrating family and friendship. Of course, the Thanksgiving feast has changed over the years. Typical dishes now include turkey, mashed potatoes, candied yams, and an assortment of pies for dessert.

However, Thanksgiving has also morphed into a celebration that is so much more than a feast. Although we often think of stuffing our faces, football, and out-of-town visits, many families across the country have opted for out-of-the-box celebrations that highlight their creativity while emphasizing their love of family and community.

The holiday can also become an important learning experience for your kids as well. Show them that Thanksgiving is about being thankful for the people we hold dear, not about money and stress.

Families share their special traditions

I spoke with many families about their special traditions and have chosen those ideas that encompass the spirit and values of our modern Thanksgiving Day, such as community service, family traditions, forgiveness, thankfulness, and sharing:

We participate in Turkey Trots. This is a 5K run or walk. There is one in Rhinebeck, New York, that benefits Ferncliff Forest. However, there are many others around New York and elsewhere. When we were in Ohio for one Thanksgiving, we participated in a Turkey Trot which benefited the Autism Society. They usually start around 9 am. If you run, you are done in about 30 minutes, and, if you walk, about 50 minutes. This still gives you time to shower and cook. We have done it several times now. Some of us walk and some of us run. Each year, we get some friends to join us.

Information about the YMCA Buffalo Niagara Turkey Trot: www.ymcabuffaloniagara.org/annual-events/ymca-turkey-trot/registration-and-runner-info/

Compton family – Hyde Park, New York

We’ve been holding a family and friends Turkey Bowl for decades now. We start early in the morning, and we’re usually done by 11 am. We use real football jerseys, and we even have a referee. We split everyone up into teams of about 15 with both adults and kids, ages 5 to 55. This event is held in all kinds of weather, including snow. We have a pot-luck breakfast, including donuts, bagels, and cider.

DeLisio family – Kingston, New York

One of the most satisfying things we’ve done is to sponsor a family in need on Thanksgiving. Many school parent-teacher associations, churches, and charities host annual events for this purpose, but you can also do this on your own by asking for donations of non-perishable foods or cash for a family in your local community that is in dire need of assistance.

Duane family – Lake Tahoe, California

We usually host a Butter Bowl (word play on Butterball Turkey). We all go bowling together. It’s a great family-bonding event. Couples can go against couples and kids against kids. You can set it up any way you’d like. We’ve done prizes, too. There’s a trophy of a big turkey that gets passed down for first place and a can of Spam that goes to last place!

Gaffney family – Fairfield, Connecticut

We like to help out the military families who are often separated on holidays. We’ve donated to Thanksgiving dinners for the U.S.O. You can also volunteer your time — families work together with the military to bring the simple comfort of a Thanksgiving meal to our troops and their families wherever they may be stationed. You can also send a holiday care package at https://www.uso.org/programs/holiday-care-packages.

Gallagher family

– St. Louis, Missouri

After dinner, we get out the oversized whiteboard and markers and play a family version of Pictionary. We all text a word or phrase to the person drawing. Then, the person drawing announces whose phrase he or she will begin to draw. It gets very funny and is a great way to celebrate.Jordan family – Staatsburg, New York

This is a fun craft to do with the kids and to then share with all guests who join the celebration. Make a construction paper turkey body with a head and cut out construction paper feathers separately. (Think: first-grade art project.) As each guest arrives, he or she gets a feather and writes what he is thankful for and adds it to the turkey.

Kane family – Hyde Park, New York

A great idea for Thanksgiving time is called “Warm Fuzzies.” Decorate Mason jars. The jars are stuffed with slips of construction paper. Each family member writes a special memory about that person or something that makes him or her special and places it in the jar. The jars are kept and added to as the years go by. These special thoughts and memories will certainly bring a smile to the person’s face throughout the year. Mom, Grandma, and I did this for years. I kept all of mine! It’s a great way to reminisce and to recall all those special times we shared.

I have another idea we’ve used, which works for anniversaries and other celebrations as well. Start with a thin layer of a trunk of a tree (e.g. 5-inches to 1-foot slice). The rings serve as a time calendar. In the center, tack a fortune cookie-sized piece of paper and label it with a special date, such as the start of your nuclear family. Then, on similar pieces of paper, mark down other important dates — births, graduations, marriages, new home, etc. Tack the pieces of paper to the rings. Each year thereafter, continue to add on new pieces. It’s a great way to commemorate the wonderful events in a family’s journey.

Sleight family – Bigfork, Montana

A rewarding and special way to celebrate Thanksgiving is to get the whole family to volunteer at a soup kitchen. Helping others out, while bonding and working as a family, makes for a memorable experience.

Strong family – Mount Airy, Maryland

Teaching moments

Of course, a bountiful meal is still an integral part of most families’ celebrations. In order to keep the spirit of the occasion, it is wise to plan early and stick to a budget, so that your Thanksgiving celebration maintains an atmosphere of good will and stress-free family bonding.

Less is more

Andrew Housser, co-CEO of Freedom Debt Relief (www.freedomdebtrelief.com) believes that Thanksgiving is a great time to teach kids about planning and budgeting.

“Plan ahead. If you are days away from the holiday with a long list of things to do, human nature says that you will be more stressed and will likely run to the store and load up on random items. The focus turns away from the meaning of the holiday. Instead, calculate how much you can spend on Thanksgiving, and then stick to it. Remember that actions speak louder than words. If you spend like it’s going out of style, you’ll be teaching this kind of money management to your kids.”

Housser advises to be realistic about how much to cook as well.

“Plan what you can eat at dinner and what you can consume in leftovers. If you have guests for dinner, send some leftovers home with them. You might also choose to donate extra food to a soup kitchen.”

This shows your children that nothing has gone to waste.

Share what you have

Housser explains, “Thanksgiving is a time to give thanks for what we have and to focus on how we can share what we have, including our time and talents.” Housser suggests helping your kids prepare a healthy meal for an elderly neighbor, offering baby-sitting services for single moms (a great idea for your kids), or creating a video for far-away family members who can’t visit in-person on the holiday.

Housser says that Thanksgiving is also a great time to start planning for the rest of the holiday season. Families might choose to make small, homemade gifts together for neighbors and friends during Thanksgiving weekend. You can also opt to bake bread or cookies together for service providers. These types of gifts save money, create a memorable bonding experience and are more thoughtful than grabbing something off the shelf at a store.

Myrna Beth Haskell is an award-winning author (www.myrnahaskell.com). She is also co-founder and managing editor of Sanctuary (www.sanctuary-magazine.com).

Giving back

Families wishing to volunteer or donate to a worthy non-profit organization can find information at the following websites:

Salvation Army: http://satruck.org/

Provides shelter, clothing, nutritional, social and spiritual assistance through its multi-faceted programs and services.

Any Soldier: http://anysoldier.com

This organization sends mail and care packages to soldiers who don’t receive any.

Feeding America: http://www.feedingamerica.org/find-your-local-foodbank/

Find a local food bank.

Meals on Wheels America: https://www.mealsonwheelsamerica.org

Meals on Wheels America is the oldest and largest national organization supporting the more than 5,000 community-based senior nutrition programs across the country that are dedicated to addressing senior hunger and isolation. Meals on Wheels delivers meals to individuals who are unable to purchase or prepare meals on their own.

Other options for donating your time or resources:

• Local nursing home — read or sing to the residents

• Local prison — usually accepts baked items

• Local children’s home or orphanage

• Community clean-up

Of course, choosing a more regular schedule to offer your time or resources is a great resolution as the year comes to an end. Thanksgiving and other holidays only come once per year, but people are in need year round.