Thanksgiving looks much the same in many homes, with turkey on the table and friends and family gathered round, but the holiday that honors the feast that colonists first shared with Native Americans means something slightly different — and uniquely special — to everyone.
For some, the day is not complete without their grandmother’s green bean casserole or their father’s homemade cranberry sauce simmering on the stove; recipes that get handed down from generation to generation. Or, in some cases, adapted from a family’s origins.
“We didn’t celebrate Thanksgiving when we lived in Mexico, but we’ve been here 40 years now and we always make a turkey or chicken and get together with our family,” said Sergio Durante of Austin, Texas, noting that the delicious stuffing his wife makes is seasoned with Mexican spices. “It’s a wonderful day to have everyone get together, and when it’s all 15 of us, it’s always a little crazy. There’s lots of laughing and joking.”
Thanksgiving traditions, however, go way beyond the meal that is served.
Some people get up early on Thanksgiving morning to participate in their local Turkey Trot, a short run (often a 5k) that gives participants of all ages and abilities the chance to connect with their community and build bonds.
For many families, dressing up for a Turkey Trot 5k is a Thanksgiving tradition. (Photo courtesy YMCA Buffalo Niagara)
The 8K YMCA Buffalo Niagara Turkey Trot, the oldest consecutively run race in America (started in 1896!), draws 14,000 runners each year, with all proceeds used to support the nonprofit group’s summer camp, fitness, and childcare programs for needy families.
Some runners are in it to win it, but Geoff Falkner, a spokesman for YMCA Buffalo Niagara, said most participants are there for fun and to raise money for a good cause.
“You get to see your high school and college friends, so it’s like one big neighborhood reunion and it’s fun because people are cheering you on along the way,” said Falkner, who has run the Turkey Trot with his parents and sister for more than a decade. “It’s a great way to kick off a great holiday. And it’s exercise, so you’re freeing up room to eat and drink more later that day.”
While Turkey Trots nationwide tend to attract runners in costume (think Pilgrim hats, turkey outfits, and fall-colored tutus), YMCA Buffalo Niagara runners put on extra trimmings.
“People push each other in grocery carts, groups of friends run with canoes on their head, and last year a family showed up dressed as an entire Thanksgiving table,” said Falkner. (Related: How runners raise money)
Other families take advantage of time off together to give back to those less fortunate.
For example, hundreds of volunteers, many of them full families, help serve meals to the homeless and working poor through the Society of St. Vincent de Paul of Arizona, which serves more than 4,000 meals per day across the Phoenix metro area.
Due to demand for volunteer opportunities during the Thanksgiving holiday, marketing director Mary Chou-Thompson said the nonprofit enlists volunteers throughout the week to sort donated food at the pantry, shop for supplies, and pick up donated turkeys from grocery stores and deliver them to homes.
“We have lots of families who come in and want to serve and give back on that day, and for many it’s an annual tradition,” said Chou-Thompson, noting that kids as young as age nine contribute as well.
Restaurateurs Jennifer and Tom Carlin have also been donating and serving meals to military veterans in transitional housing at the Community Hope Home in Basking Ridge, New Jersey, for the past 10 years.
“Every year I am touched by the kindness of these veterans and their gracious hearts as we serve them on Thanksgiving,” she said. “It’s really such a wonderful day.”
Others use the long weekend as an opportunity to immerse themselves in humanitarian aid. “Last Thanksgiving, we traveled to Guatemala, where our family helped build a house for a family in need,” said one father who shared his story. “We wanted our son to see what giving back and being thankful was all about.”
And many open their homes to neighbors from overseas who have nowhere else to go. One family said they invited their foreign friends to join them for a traditional Thanksgiving meal years ago — and the tradition stuck. “We cook every year and we invite our European friends because, well, we like them and they have no family here to celebrate with. We’ve done it for many years and now it wouldn’t be Thanksgiving without them. It’s become a wonderful family tradition.”
It’s no surprise that many declare Thanksgiving to be their favorite holiday. After all, it’s not about material things. It’s a day to enjoy good food, count blessings, and spend time with loved ones.
Indeed, for families divided by distance, the four-day weekend is often the only time all year that they come together under one roof.
To make the most of their quality time, Ellicott City, Maryland native Carmen Johnson bakes Christmas cookies the day after Thanksgiving with her mom, sister, grandmother, cousin, and aunt — a tradition that began nearly 50 years ago.
Together, they produce more than 200 cookies to enjoy and share in the weeks ahead, including oatmeal, sliced walnut, chocolate chip, and ginger cookies. “We laugh, reminisce about old times, and laugh some more,” said Johnson. “Whether we are rolling out dough, carefully placing sprinkles on a cookie, or belting out Christmas carols, our time together is priceless.”
Their cookie making party wasn’t always held on Thanksgiving weekend, Johnson noted, but when she and her sister left for college, it just made sense to pick a day when they were all home together. Johnson said her sons now participate, as well.
“It was incredibly heart-warming for me to watch my two boys decorate sugar cookies for the first time — their small fingers turning different shades of colors. They were full of pride at seeing how well their cookies turned out,” she said.
Thanksgiving traditions, of course, aren’t always traditional. Sometimes they’re creative, or even silly.
Jennifer Kerdock, whose large extended family gathers at her aunt’s house in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, each year for Thanksgiving dinner, describes their 30-year tradition of “Tacky Thanksgiving.”
“Everyone shows up in the tackiest outfit they can find,” she said. “There’s a lot of ill-fitting polyester. This fabric does not breathe. It’s not pretty.”
However you choose to spend Thanksgiving this year — surrounded by family, in the company of friends, or serving those in need — take the time to connect with those you love and make the holiday meaningful for you.
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This article was originally published in November 2017.