My wife is great at making special days (like Thanksgiving) even more special. Yes we have all the traditional foods and we have lots of relatives over. And my wife decorates the house with plenty of fall colors (pumpkins and fake orange and yellow leaves cover the mantel over the fireplace right now). But she and I have believed for many years now that Thanksgiving is sort of a “forgotten” holiday that is run over in the mad dash to all the commercialism of Christmas.
We wanted our kids to know the true story of Thanksgiving, and to grow up seriously reflecting about what it means to serve others and to be grateful at the same time. The following traditions are my wife’s ideas we’ve adopted into our home to teach our kids. We hope they prove to be a blessing to you and your family.
1. Watch “This Is America, Charlie Brown: The Mayflower Voyages.”
Yes, Charlie Brown, Lucy, Linus, and Snoopy teach kids and parents the TRUE story of the Pilgrims! This little-known cartoon is outstanding! It is not “politically correct” and actually teaches all sorts of interesting facts about the Pilgrims, their journey to worship God in freedom in the New World, their times of struggle and starvation, and the intervention of Samoset, Squanto, Massasoit, and the rest of the Indians.
Even though my kids are all grown now, when they come home for Thanksgiving, we all gather ’round and watch this great little movie! I bet your family will love it too.
2. Put together “blessing bags.”
What do you do when you see homeless people begging on the side of the road? Tragically, we have a number of people in our area who stand outside with a cardboard sign and beg. Are they legit? Are they scamming us? Maybe a mixture of both. I do not have a crystal ball, and I cannot know everything about their lives. But we can meet a need right now, and it may lead to a greater ministry to someone later on. So, on Thanksgiving our family puts together “blessing bags.”
My wife buys all sorts of supplies ahead of time: energy bars, bottles of water, tissues, a toothbrush and toothpaste, soap, candy or chewing gun, a wash cloth, packets of raisins or nuts, and a small New Testament or a gospel tract. You can put whatever you think is helpful in it. Maybe information and directions to the closest homeless shelter would be good, too.
We lay it all out and go around the table assembling the bags. Usually each family member makes two or three bags, but you can make as many as you want until the supplies run out. Then keep these in the car and hand them out when the opportunity arises.
Some people have gratefully received the bags. A few took them without any expression of gratitude at all. It doesn’t matter to us; instead of just ignoring the least among us, we can give them something that is beneficial.
3. Read scripture and talk about gratitude.
Sometimes we’ll put several verses from the Bible about thankfulness or rejoicing or God’s provision in a jar or box. ( I remember one Thanksgiving where each verse was written on a beautiful orange or brown paper leaf.) Before dinner starts, we’ll pass that around and everyone has to pull out a piece of paper with the Bible verse on it. They can look at it and start thinking about one particular thing they are thankful for.
At the end of dinner (before we all lapse into a food coma) each person then reads their Scripture passage out loud, sticks it on a piece of poster paper, and tells everyone about the one thing they are most grateful for. Some answers were pretty surprising!
4. Feed the homeless at a homeless shelter.
You may want to do this on Thanksgiving or some time before. Either way, I guarantee it will change your way of thinking for a long time to come. And it will definitely change the way your kids think about poverty. I probably would not take really young children into our local homeless shelters since they have been known to have some “rowdy” people at times, but our teens certainly could handle the environment.
Many people who come in are truly hungry, are polite when we serve them and are grateful. I honestly do not know where they would have gotten a hot meal that day if our homeless shelter had not been there. Yes, there are some people who have a bad attitude; they expect to be served and are greedy. Most are happy and grateful, however. Both groups served to teach us and our kids that this world is a rough place, and if there were no people of good faith tending to the last and the least, this world would be a much, much darker place.
We see that there are some very fine people who are simply stuck in a tough situation through no fault of their own. Some have made a series of really bad choices and are reaping what they’ve sown. Usually we would all leave the shelter pretty quietly, deep in our own thoughts. And we would all be much more attentive to the needs of others and thankful for what we do have.
5. Invite people who have no place to go.
Is there a university or college nearby? Think of all the students who have no place to go for the holidays. Think especially of the foreign students who know nothing about our wonderful Thanksgiving traditions and next to nothing about your faith. Imagine how lonely they are, being separated from their families. What a wonderful opportunity this would be to invite them over for a feast with all your family! They could tell you about their family traditions, and your kids would learn to appreciate cultures from around the world.
It breaks my heart when I think about elderly people who have no place to go, or young single people who are far away from home. Some people are from quite “dysfunctional” families and would rather be alone than spend a tense or violent Thanksgiving with their family. Imagine how you could light up their world if you invited them over!
I remember when I was in seminary in the Washington, D.C. area about 35 years ago. I worked as a security guard, and I could not travel home to Georgia for Thanksgiving. It made me pretty sad because I was dreaming about cornbread dressing, and collard greens and Daddy’s biscuits and Mama’s pecan pie, and I wouldn’t be there to eat it! But fortunately a friend of mine invited me over to her family’s house. The place was packed with family and they treated me as one of their own. The food was excellent, and the company was even better. We laughed and ate and swapped stories for hours and hours. My loneliness was gone that whole day, and it was all because of a friend who was aware of a need.
Ever since then we’ve done the same and invited over people who had no place to go. Our kids have seen this, know what a blessing it is, and I’m sure will practice it when they have their own places and families. Seize the opportunities, teach your kids, and spread the joy!