22 Meaningful Ideas for an Old-Fashioned, Thanksgiving Centered on Christ
The first Thanksgiving was about showing gratitude to God.
The pilgrims spent three days feasting, praying, praising, playing and listening to Bible teaching. They let themselves enjoy the bounty and festivities to God’s glory. Gratitude was the focus of the celebration, not the feast.
The pilgrims were outnumbered 2:1 by the Native Americans who they had invited to join them, and who contributed an abundance of fowl and venison, but that did not change their purpose. Though their new friends were accustomed to giving thanks as well, they would have witnessed the pilgrim’s Christian faith in action.
Later, when President Abraham Lincoln made Thanksgiving an official observance, the purpose was just as clear. He invited the citizens to “set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next as a Day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the heavens.”
Like most other holidays in America today, the focus has shifted away from God. As a result, we find ourselves longing for more. We miss Thanksgiving “the way Gramma used to do it,” but how did she do it?
Perhaps she simply did not let the purpose of Thanksgiving leave her home.
Below I will explore five features of the old-fashioned Thanksgiving from our memories, or dreams, and several fun, easy and wholesome ways to return to it.
This year, create your own homespun, humble observance, full of heartfelt gratitude, service and generosity, warmth and love. Help the weary and anxious who come to gather with you to turn their minds and hearts back to the good Father from whom all blessings flow.
The primary purpose of Thanksgiving is to praise and worship God. To praise God is to acknowledge and thank Him, and to worship Him is to bow in humility and adoration. How different would our celebration be if that was our focus instead of the meal? There would be joy and fullness at last.
(Learn about the spiritual principle of thankfulness here.)
Jesus said, “Where two or three gather in my name, there I am with them.” (Matt 18:20) Here are some ways to “do church” in your home on Thanksgiving.
1. Read from Scripture (here are some suggestions)
2. Prepare to share a personal reflection or devotion.
3. Pray for one another.
Take the Thanksgiving prayer a step further. Invite others to join in as they feel comfortable. Pray about current events and one another’s needs.
4. Incorporate worship music.
If you usually have music in the background at your meals, choose worship songs. Limit the television in favor of music, or instead play music videos from your favorite Christian artists. Alternatively, invite your guests to sing a favorite hymn with you. Or, a song the children know might be more comfortable and fun, such as “Jesus Loves Me.” If someone in attendance is musically inclined, such as a guitarist, invite them to bring their instrument.
5. Do a biblical Thanksgiving lesson and activity with the children.
If there will be children at your house, teach them the focus of the day using an age-appropriate activity just for them. Borrow ideas from free Thanksgiving children’s church lessons online (like these ones from Answers in Genesis) or make your own. If you struggle sharing Jesus with grownups, this can be a less intrusive way to do it. Invite the grownups to be present for the children’s activity so they hear the message, too.
6. Read or tell the story of the first Thanksgiving.
If there will be children at your house, you can use a story book. One that includes the truth about religious persecution and the hardship of the pilgrims is The Story of the Pilgrims by Katharine Ross. Excerpts from William Bradford’s journals (the colony governor) are also available online and in books, such as Of Plymouth Plantation: In Modern English.
Our current America that feels so divided relates in ways to the division of the nation at the time when Lincoln made this proclamation in October 1863. America was still in the throes of the Civil War. But just as the Native Americans and colonists found unity in the act of giving thanks, so can Americans today.
8. Invite biblical conversation pertaining to Thanksgiving topics, such as gratitude, praise, or ways to share the Gospel over cultural barriers.
You can prepare a few discussion questions in advance, either serious or lighthearted, to spark purposeful dinner conversation. Or, you and your guests may even desire a less casual time set aside for Bible study.
9. Ask others to share their spiritual gifts.
Ask your guests to bring more than a dish. Share responsibilities just like at a church worship service or a small group meeting. Ask someone to pray, someone to choose music, someone to do a devotion, someone to do a craft with the kids, etc.
10. Take communion together.
When the first church met together, the breaking of bread and communion was a regular part of their fellowship. What better way to be intentional about glorifying Jesus at your Thanksgiving meal than to commemorate the special meal Jesus shared with his closest friends? When Christians observe communion, we remember what it is we have to be most thankful for.
Emulate Frugality and Humility
Follow the example of the past by returning in godly wisdom to frugality and humility. This is the best way to teach Christian children that a meal becomes a feast not because of the amount and variety of what is served, but because of love and gratitude.
11. Make food go further with traditional cooking.
Cooking from scratch has its benefits. It is cheaper and naturally goes further. If an unexpected guest is coming, simply add another potato to the pot. If you purchase pre-made foods or use meal kits, you only have a certain amount. When cooking yourself, you can add a little more of this or that to bulk up the meal as needed.
So, instead of spending the extra buck because you’re worried about not having enough, plan to spread the meal the way your grandmother did. Some examples of how to do this are:
Forego the extra cans or packets of gravy. Make gravy with the turkey drippings. (All you need is a little cornstarch and, if desired, milk for creaminess.)
Make frugal homemade stuffing. Freeze unwanted pieces of bread (heels, crusts, dry pieces, etc.) throughout the year to make your Thanksgiving stuffing in November. (Melt a stick of butter in a skillet. Add chopped celery and onion and cook till soft. Chop the bread and use poultry seasoning to taste. Mix everything together and add some turkey broth or water for moisture, and a beaten egg. Squish mixture into a cake pan and bake at 350 degrees until a little crusty on top.)
Forget super fancy side dishes with expensive garnishes. Make the most of a carton of eggs by turning them into deviled eggs.
Make vegetable dishes into casseroles – the most classic hack to feed more with less. (For example, add a can of cream of mushroom condensed soup to green beans to make green bean casserole.)
12. Share what you already have – not what you are tempted to splurge to provide.
Do not fall into excessive spending. That is not what generosity is about. Generosity is a way we respond to our gratitude. This is a time to enjoy and share what our Provider has given, not to go into debt.
Instead, invite others to bring a dish. Understand that you do not need two types of meat, or two types of potatoes, or two types of anything. There is no reason to buy a whole turkey if it is not in your budget. Turkey breasts can suffice, and they don’t need to cook as long. Forget premade trays of anything. Fillers are not needed. Find out what happens when you don’t go overboard. You just may be pleasantly surprised.
13. Serve others cheerfully.
Make this a day to nurture your family in humility. Reflect on Jesus’ instructions on His last night with His disciples, when He washed their feet and told them to do likewise. (John 13) This will not only help you stay at peace with the right perspective, but you will teach others by your example.
Serve a Traditional, Homemade Meal
14. Opt for a traditional meal to provide the comfort of nostalgia, commemorate the pilgrim’s meal of turkey and harvest vegetables, and supply hearty food choices to fill and warm your guests.
If you stick to the basics, you will achieve the grandmother effect, greatly reduce your stress, and humbly feature God’s provision in the harvest.
A simple menu includes: roast turkey and gravy, bread stuffing, mashed potatoes, corn, bread or rolls, cranberry sauce, and pumpkin or pecan pie. Cider, water and coffee are the only drinks needed.
Other economical and classic Thanksgiving vegetables include: sweet potatoes, green beans, brussel sprouts, squash, and beets. The more you feature vegetables in their whole forms, the more splashes of color you add to the table.
Traditional Thanksgiving dinner recipes are available in abundance online, such as these.
Check out my recipe for no-fail pie crust here. This recipe makes 2-3 pies. It can be made in advance and kept in refrigerator for several days.
Create an Atmosphere of Warmth and Love
An atmosphere of warmth and love unique to the day generates the excitement in the children that we remember from our own childhood. There are simple things we can do to make the holiday more visually appealing, but the atmosphere of our home is mainly set by our own hearts. Guests sigh in relief upon entering a peaceful home. It is a restful, safe place where they feel welcome and loved. The experience will not easily be forgotten. Let your light shine!
15. Use the good dishes.
After all, that’s the way Gramma did it! This is a time of serving. The women in your past who made holidays special likely had servant’s hearts. Such a special character trait must be cultivated.
If you have prettier dishware, or some has been passed down to you, consider bringing it out for occasions such as this. If you do not have any, this may be something to consider investing in as you start holiday traditions of your own. The "good dishes" have traditionally set the day apart. They also add charm and old-fashioned appeal. In addition, using glass dishware reveals your willingness to give of yourself to others, and to dealing with dirty dishes. However, never forget that paper, plastic and regular dishware are never more beautiful and special than when being used in service to others.
16. Opt for fabric tablecloths and napkins.
If the special dishware is not available, it is much easier to obtain a pretty tablecloth to add flare to your feast each year. Even when there are no other decorations, the nice tablecloth adds enough class on its own. It is a change of scenery. It tells the children something new is happening. Such a simple thing can generate much reverence and excitement.
17. Add candles.
Candles have a unique ability all their own to set a warm, peaceful mood. They are a comforting change from the glaring lights of the rest of our lives. From mobile phone screens to bright supermarkets, the light we know is so often commercial. Nothing settles the spirit better than coming away from stimulations into a place of stillness. Candles are soft and gentle, and they remind us of simpler times. They always make beautiful centerpieces at any holiday meal.
18. Plan ahead to reduce your stress.
Stress always shows. The best way to calm and comfort others is to have a calm spirit yourself. Stay ahead of your To-Do list so you can focus on the things that matter. For example, don’t save your shopping until the day before. Shop in advance to avoid joining crowds of rushing, stressed people. Also, decide your menu in advance and find out what you can make ahead, such as pie dough. Many dishes can be prepared the day before and only need reheated. Figure the time you will need to thaw and cook the turkey. Most importantly, spend time in prayer before, during and after the holiday. The Lord of Peace will be with you.
19. Fill up on Jesus.
While you cook, clean or run errands, listen to sermon messages or inspiring podcasts to help you prepare your own mind and heart. (My recommendations are Skip Heitzig, here.; the Bible Project podcast, here; and Proverbs 31 ministries, here.)
Planning larger meals is rarely easy, so stop the anxiety before it starts by focusing on Jesus. If you have any trouble cultivating a thankful heart, learn how to unlock the secret here.
20. Plan to Play Games
Games bring joy and laughter and are helpful tools for breaking the ice or livening things up. Friends and family grow closer to together when they spend time in activities with one another. The most beloved games can become a tradition.
My suggestion for a game that can be played with children is “Stone Soup.” The folk tale Stone Soup is about everyone sharing something to the soup pot, making a better meal for all than what they would have had individually, which goes along with the Thanksgiving theme.
My suggestion for a longer, strategy game for adults is “Catan: Family Edition Board Game,” which can also put to mind the colonists just starting out in a new country. Another version, "Catan Histories: Settlers of America" is an educational history game set in the pioneer days of the Wild West.
Rustic Aesthetic Featuring God’s Creation and Provision
If you plan to add additional décor, look no further than God's creation outside. Artificial foliage can be just as beautiful (and it will last year to year), but if available to you, plant life nearby may be free. Try thinking outside the box and use what you find outdoors for a truly rustic setting. Depending on where you live, like me, you may need to plan in advance before the snow flies.
21. Feature God's creation by using live plants, autumn leaves, branches, dried herbs, pinecones, and even straw in your décor, centerpieces and place settings.
22. Feature the fall harvest in your decorating to showcase God’s provision.
Many vegetables are in season at this time of year - pumpkins, pears, squash, apples and corn to name a few. Feature whatever you have not cooked as part of your décor. Do not let the bounty go to waste. Send some home with guests, or donate to local soup kitchens.
Have a blessed Thanksgiving!
Meg Grimm is a Christian writer on a mission to help women replace enemy lies, counterfeits and magic with God’s truth, beauty and wonder. She has authored several books on biblical wisdom for natural healthcare.