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20 Unique Thanksgiving Traditions to Start With Your Family This Year

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Every Thanksgiving celebration all but requires a few essential elements: a gleaming roast turkey with stuffing (or dressing, depending on your background and geographic location), easy mashed potatoes with gravy, pumpkin pie with a dollop of whipped cream for dessert, and plenty of supporting Thanksgiving side dishes to make the table groan under the bounty. And if your family is anything like mine, you probably have at least a few holiday traditions that really make the occasion feel uniquely yours.

For many people, Thanksgiving is one of the few chances we have all year to gather with our families or chosen families to share a fabulous meal, give thanks for our blessings and revel in the pleasure of each other’s company. Over the years, families and groups of friends often develop their own special Thanksgiving traditions they bring out every turkey day. Those can range from goofy to touching, culinary to crafty, athletic to relaxing — and most require few to no additional materials other than everyone’s enthusiasm. We asked the Good Housekeeping staff and a handful of friends to share the events, dishes and experiences that make their holiday memorable. Adapt one or a few of them into your own celebration.


Get Your TV Marathon On


Ask the Kids to Set the Table

Get the littlest guests involved in the preparations by having them set the table for dinner while the adults put the finishing touches on the food. Giving them a task is a triple whammy: They’ll be proud that they could contribute to the festivities, learn the importance of pitching in, and stay out of trouble (and away from the hot stove).


Celebrate Everyone’s Birthdays

Families and friend groups that only see each other once a year, this one’s for you. Emma Seymour of the Good Housekeeping textiles lab says her family sings Happy Birthday when they gather for Thanksgiving — cake with candles included! That way, everyone gets to celebrate their special day with those they love, even if they can’t travel all gather together on the actual date.

RELATED: 17 Fun Quarantine Thanksgiving Ideas to Help You Have a Festive Feast


Volunteer at a Soup Kitchen

On Thanksgiving, pay your blessings forward, suggests Rhythms of Play. Volunteer at a local soup kitchen, food pantry or at any organization serving a hot meal or gathering supplies for those who may otherwise go without. Charity organizations generally appreciate a few extra hands, especially on a holiday. Call ahead to make sure they can accommodate your group, and get any special instructions.


Take a Turkey Trot

Sign up for a turkey trot to get some exercise before digging into the big meal. The first known Turkey Trot footrace took place in Buffalo, NY in 1896, and it’s still one of the largest in the country. My dad and I do it every year I’m in town, and it always starts the day off on a good foot (pun very much intended). For an even more festive run, dress up in silly costumes and laugh all the way to the finish line.


Make a Special Dish

Good Housekeeping senior editor Allie Early’s family serves up fond memories alongside their turkey. “We make a coleslaw recipe that my grandmother always made for my mom and her siblings, and we serve it in a special bowl that she passed down to my mom,” Early says. “It’s a special way to remember my grandma when we’re all together.”

RELATED: 50+ Best Traditional Thanksgiving Dinner Recipes to Make


Turn the Tablecloth Into a Keepsake

Draw your thanks on the tablecloth for a keepsake that doubles as a fun activity, suggests Red Tricycle. Cover the table with a white fabric tablecloth and scatter cloth markers along the table. Ask your guests to draw what they’re thankful for, their favorite Thanksgiving memory or even a quirky self-portrait. By the time the meal ends, you’ll have a reusable memento to dress up the table year after year.


Start With a Big Breakfast

If your family sits down to Thanksgiving dinner a little on the later side, starting the day with a big breakfast can help keep the hangries at bay. Some families serve mimosas or Bloody Mary fixins to get the day off to a festive start, others set out bagels and pastries to nosh while they prep. Or maybe you’re more of a quiche and egg casserole group. Whatever your breakfast personality, there’s a reason it’s the most important meal of the day.


Write Out Your Thanks

After dinner or while waiting for the bird to rest, pass out thank you cards and pre-stamped envelopes and ask your guests to write a note to someone who made a difference in their lives over the last year, The Family Handyman suggests. Collect them on the way out the door to send on Black Friday. It’s a lovely opportunity to reflect on what really matters, and will serve as a touching reminder for the recipients too.

RELATED: 25+ Corny Thanksgiving Jokes Kids Will Love To Hear


Serve Pickles (Yes, Pickles!)

For Good Housekeeping Institute deputy editor Jessica Teich, Thanksgiving just wouldn’t be the same without one dish. “My significant other’s family always puts out a giant plate of pickles with dinner. They swear it helps with digestion,” she says. “I used the think it was the weirdest thing and now I think Thanksgiving dinner is incomplete without it!” There’s some evidence that pickles really do help gut health, plus they’re just delicious.


Tune in to the Dog Show

Lots of people kick off their Thanksgiving by watching the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, and often flip the channel to a football game when Santa Claus arrives. But if you prefer your athletes on the furry side, there’s always the National Dog Show. It airs after the parade on NBC and will probably result in less yelling than the big game. That is, unless your family has strong opinions on the merits of Corgis vs. Golden Retrievers.


Ask the Kids to Serve Dessert

To help them feel integral to the festivities, ask the younger guests to serve dessert. Kids sometimes feel left out of the big day, especially if your family sets up a kids’ table away from the adults. Older children can help slice and plate pies or cakes for the younger ones to serve. Bonus: the grown-ups get to relax around the table a bit longer!


Craft a Cornucopia

Traditionally, a cornucopia was usually filled with the autumn harvest, plants and flowers, to show off that season’s autumnal bounty. Make it your own by asking guests to bring objects that are meaningful to them, suggests Donelle Crigger of Gluesticks and Gumdrops. Place them in a cornucopia, a basket or other decorative container and use it as a meaningful centerpiece for your table.


Go Ahead, Enjoy the Store-Bought Stuff

Is there a more divisive dish on the table than stuffing? Many families swear by grandma’s stuffing recipe, others gobble up the just-add-broth kind. Good Housekeeping parenting and relationships editor Marisa LaScala has found a great middle ground. “A couple days before Thanksgiving, we go to the deli and get sliced turkey and make Stove-Top-and-turkey sandwiches to indulge our guilty pleasure,” she says.


Break the Wishbone – With a Twist!

When you first carve the turkey, set aside the wishbone to dry while everyone eats. After you finish the dishes, draw names to decide who gets to break it. Make a wish — legend has it the winner will see theirs come true in the upcoming year. For a fun twist, let the winner get dessert first!

RELATED: How to Prepare a Turkey for Roasting


Take a Walk After Dinner

For a tradition that’s both fun and good for you, get your blood pumping after eating. Bundle up if you live in a cold climate and bring some flashlights if it’s after dusk and go for a lap or two around the block. Taking a stroll gives everyone more time to connect with each other, too.


Take Some Down Time

In the whirlwind of cleaning the house, preparing and cooking the meal, cleaning it all up and spending time with your guests in between, even the most extroverted among us may feel exhausted after it’s all over. Start the day on solid footing by taking just a few moments of alone time before it all begins. You’ll be able to enjoy the excitement that much more.


Get Everyone on the Phone

Thanks to the wonders of technology, even the most faraway loved ones can participate in the festivities. Take some time out the IRL celebrations to video call those who can’t make it to the table. And while you’ve got the whole fam gathered ’round, take a group photo to commemorate the occasion.


Bring Your Own Leftovers Container

We’ve all faced the frustration of running out of to-go containers when packing up the leftovers. Get in front of that problem by asking each guest to bring their own container for leftovers. You won’t have to spend the rest of the year chasing down yours, and everyone goes home happy.

RELATED: 30 Leftover Turkey Recipes You Can Quickly Make


Take a Thanksgiving Trip

If you tend to fly solo on Thanksgiving or mark the occasion with a smaller crew, try taking a Thanksgiving family vacation instead of making dinner at home. You’ll encounter fewer crowds and might even start a fun new tradition. Book a big family dinner at your destination – and let someone else do the clean-up.

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