While Thanksgiving is an American holiday observed each November, other cultures have their own versions of the autumn harvest thanksgiving. Traditions may vary from country to country, but celebrations universally revolve around family and food.
During overseas assignments or times when we were far away from our extended family, we often invited friends to join us in cooking and celebrating the Thanksgiving meal. We found that maintaining tradition—or even creating new rituals—helps our family to enjoy the holiday no matter where we live.
When you’re a busy parent, especially with young children, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed at the thought of preparing and hosting an elaborate meal, but this is your chance to get the whole family involved. First of all, forget perfection. It’s more important to foster teamwork than to have an Epicurean feast and a spotless home. There are many tasks that even the youngest kids can perform.
One year we put our children in charge of table decorations and now their display is a family tradition. After gathering a collection of colorful autumn leaves, the kids scatter them artfully along a white tablecloth on the dining table. If your table isn’t large enough or you don’t have table linens, try covering some card tables with a bed sheet (a clean one).
Instead of a floral centerpiece, the children cut blossoms from potted chrysanthemums and float them in clear shallow bowls filled with marbles or pebbles. For candles, we buy miniature pumpkins, carve a hole in the top and insert small votives.
When the children were young, we taught them how to set a table by remembering that left and fork have four letters; and right, knife, spoon and glass have five. I usually bring out the fine china for Thanksgiving, but one year when we had more guests than plates, we ate on festive paper plates purchased at National Azabu Supermarket.
After flatware and dishes are in place, the kids enjoy using their imagination in folding the napkins and making place cards. We’ve had everything from origami-like creations to rolled napkins secured with ribbons (rubber bands are easier for tiny hands) and garnished with flowers or leaves. Simple place cards can be made by folding construction paper or washi paper, writing the guest’s name, and decorating with stickers or artwork.
If you’re preparing a traditional Thanksgiving meal with turkey and all the trimmings, it helps to divide the cooking tasks. Now that our children are older, each of them is responsible for a dish. One child peels, cuts, boils and mashes the potatoes while another prepares the salad with homemade dressing. My 14-year-old is proud of the blackberry cobbler that he concocted one summer and he prepares this instead of pumpkin pie for dessert.
I have to confess that I always order a fully cooked turkey with gravy and dressing. After years of never getting it quite right (the turkey was usually dry, but one year it was raw!), I find it less stressful knowing that the main dish will look and taste delicious.
Now that you’ve made the preparations a family affair, you can all sit down and enjoy the fruits of your labor. Years ago we borrowed another family’s tradition of holding hands around the table and singing grace before a holiday meal.
Our teenagers have been known to balk at this tradition, especially in front of company, but I still insist on it. The tunes vary, from the Johnny Apple-seed song to Latin chants, but the sweet clear sound of our children’s harmonies always touches my heart. Here’s hoping that your Thanksgiving table is filled with family, friends and a bountiful harvest.