With Thanksgiving fast approaching, we asked several of our writers to tell us about their favorite Thanksgiving traditions and stories. Whether a quiet affair at home, or a boisterous congregation of friends and extended family, the richness of gathering with loved ones unites us all in this harvest season.
They wake early, as they always do, each with their own demands—one for milk, another for a story, all for attention. We take turns pouring bowls of cereal to satiate them, while the other dresses in warm running clothes. We bundle them up next, letting them keep their pajamas on under their coats. There is no school today; we have no place to be.
Then it’s out the door, two jogging strollers loaded up with three children snuggling under blankets for extra warmth. It’s a chilly 20 degrees on this November morning, perfect weather for a family run. Four miles later we return home to a lazy morning of Lego creating and train track building. There is a parade on TV followed by some football games, but it serves merely as background sound to our typical routine. While the littlest naps, I escape to the kitchen to chop and slice and stir, enjoying the excuse to linger over dinner preparations. It feels like a luxury in comparison to the usual hurry scurry at the end of the day. Later we’ll sit down as a family and they will nibble at the parts they like and shove aside the parts they don’t. Then it’s rush-rush-rush to the bedtime shuffle, ending our day as we always do, two tired grownups with one brief moment of alone time before we must wake up and do it all over again.
It’s a narrative like any other day in the life of a young family. Meals around a table, some chores, plenty of play—the usual rhythms of our day.
But it’s NOT just any other day. For at this moment in other homes, many families freshen up guest bedrooms and add another leaf to the table. They pile into the car to travel, if not over the river and through the woods, at least to the next suburb for dinner. Kitchens fill with cherished recipes only used at the holidays. And grandparents snuggle babies they don’t see often enough. It’s a commonly held practice they partake in.
For today is Thanksgiving.
As a child, I loved and cherished this tradition in my family, too. We always had more around our table than just our usual family of five. I looked forward to my Grandma’s cranberry salad and my Granny’s butter rolls. I loved the years when we shared the kids’ table with cousins and giggled over jokes our parents probably wouldn’t approve of. It was loud and busy and likely a bit stressful to my parents as the hosts. But it was Thanksgiving, a time to gather with loved ones to give thanks together in community. It was tradition.
But the tradition looks a little different for me now. In our house, Thanksgiving is just us, my husband and our three kids. It’s simple, quiet, and ordinary. And I wouldn’t change a thing.
We didn’t set out with this plan. When I envisioned Thanksgiving with a family of my own one day, I saw overflowing tables, kitchens buzzing with excitement, and kin repeating “my how you have grown” mantras. It was tradition, after all.
But things changed when our daughter was only a year old and our family moved to Texas, a good two day’s drive from either of our families. Visits became less frequent with the increase of travel times to loved ones. Feasibly our family could only fit one big epic Christmas road trip into our holiday plans. Thanksgiving travel was out of the question.
And this is where our tradition of a small family Thanksgiving began.
The beautiful thing about tradition though, is often it arises as an answer to a problem. We could be disappointed to miss out on Grandma’s stuffing, sad to not take the hands of our family around a big table for a blessing, nostalgic for the giggling sounds of cousins reunited. And we were.
But we also realized we were given an opportunity—to create our own memories, to celebrate in our own way, to choose to focus on what truly matters on this day: gratitude. Thus, what began as a loss transformed into a cherished tradition to make Thanksgiving small yet magical just for our family.
This tradition takes shape in different ways from year to year. The first year, still learning what it felt like to be alone in a new place, local friends invited us to their Thanksgiving table, partaking in their own family’s traditions for this holiday. One year, two friends traveled from out of town to join us, our own little mini version of Friendsgiving. The most memorable year of all was the Thanksgiving we went camping. The food warmed over a campfire, the dining table sat under the stars, and we closed out the night snuggled together inside our tent. It seemed like an outlandish plan to go camping for Thanksgiving, and truth be told, it was hard to enjoy the traditional flavors of Thanksgiving dinner when everything tasted like campfire smoke. But when you live in Texas you take advantage of the weather that invites November camping. It’s the kind of magic you only find when you let go of expectations and make room for new traditions.
However most years, like this one, it’s quiet. Not much separates the day from any other except for one thing—intention. For in the midst of a full and fast season of life, we need those reminders to be grateful for our small family sitting around the table, as well as those we will send wishes to via video calls after dinner (a reminder to put technology on the grateful list.) Even now, with the distance between us and family cut in half since our move to Minnesota, we find we prefer this slower pace to the holiday. Sometimes you have to slow down to spot the magic.
I glance at my menu plan as I make the final preparations for dinner. We may keep the company simple, but that doesn’t stop me from presenting a feast. The usual dishes will fill the table—the turkey, stuffing, and of course Grandma’s cranberry salad. There will also be a new Brussels sprout recipe, two different kinds of pie, and an unnecessarily large portion of creamy mashed potatoes. It is a lot for a family of five, especially when two of the diners are really only here for the pie, and one doesn’t even have teeth yet. But the ritual of food is part of the magic for me and the size of the table doesn’t change that. Also, no one ever complained about too many Thanksgiving leftovers.
Just as I pull out the vegetable peeler to get started on the potatoes, I hear a whining sound come from the monitor—a reminder of a nap time cut short. I sigh, recognizing the passing of my peaceful cooking moment. If there were grandparents in the house, I could hand him off. But it’s just us, me in the kitchen, him in the living room entertaining the Lego builders. I pull out the baby carrier, snuggle the nap quitter into my chest, and continue cooking. Ordinarily this would frustrate me. But I’m learning to embrace the confluence of the magic with the ordinary. Children don’t stop needing you just because it is a holiday. We chose this tradition, which often requires a bit more effort on our part to make it work for us.
And we make the sacrifice willingly, because we know in a few weeks, we will get our turn at that big family holiday tradition. We’ll get to be in the cars traveling over the river and through the woods, we’ll sleep in strange beds, and we’ll finally snuggle those family members we are missing tonight.
But today, it’s just us—our small family of five sitting around the table, as we always do, but with the lingering reminder to be grateful, to be intentional, and to notice the magic. After all, it’s our tradition.