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10 Ways to Celebrate Thanksgiving without the Usual Big Meal

10 Ways to Celebrate Thanksgiving without the Usual Big Meal

We North Americans tend to have a difficult time breaking with tradition when it comes to Thanksgiving but sometimes the image of the elaborate turkey presentation and the polished silverware and the gleaming crystal just doesn’t make sense. I love Norman Rockwell paintings as much as the next red-blooded American, but there are years when gathering around a fancy table just doesn’t work.

In honor of good ol’ American ingenuity and creativity, here are 10 ways to celebrate Thanksgiving without the usual big meal.

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1. Consider making the focus of your celebration not the meal (but prepare your friends and family in advance).

There are all kinds of reasons a family might choose to not focus on the meal, and there are certainly ways to make the day be about something entirely different. But if your family is used to the big meal and everything that goes with it, you might need to ease them into the idea days or even weeks before.

Few of us handle a sudden change in expectations well so give your loved ones a heads-up. Tell them that this year the focus will be on spending time together, visiting friends and family, or simply slowing down and taking time off.

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2. Consider an easier location.

When our oldest boys were little guys, my brothers also had three sons apiece. The year that there were nine little boys under the age of 7, we decided a change of venue was in order. We packed up baskets of Thanksgiving dinner, turkey and all, and headed to a park in the foothills just outside of the towns where we all lived. 

This was the best thing we could have done. The meal was laid out on picnic tables where we adults (including grandparents) sat and enjoyed at our own pace. The boys ran and played and kicked soccer balls and ate in fits and starts. There was no pressure, no stress, and clean-up consisted largely of paper plates we could toss in the garbage cans at the park and hauling the baskets and leftovers to our cars. 

In subsequent years, we returned to the park. Our family now includes a son with special needs, and we all enjoyed our time together that much more because the one person who would have struggled the most in a stuffy indoor setting was free to be who and what he is. We were free to delight in him and enjoy each other, as well. 

And even though I mentioned taking the whole Thanksgiving meal with us, you can adjust this to be anything you want. Turkey sandwiches are sometimes the best part of Thanksgiving, am I right?

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3. Consider serving on a missions or service team.

For several years now, the missions team from our church has planned a Thanksgiving week service trip to an orphanage we serve in Mexico. Anyone is welcome to go and the team ends up being an enthusiastic mix of three dozen kids, teens, adults, singles, and families.

My husband took our four teenagers on the first trip. Together they served the sweet population of orphans with special needs by providing games, Bible teaching, hands-on care in the dental and medical clinics, and much-needed respite for the full-time staff. It was one of the most memorable Thanksgivings our family has ever experienced, even for those of us who stayed behind and let the older kids go with their dad. 

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4. Consider a location you love and an opportunity to serve others.

Our family loves the beach and would rather spend a day there than almost anywhere else in the world. We’ve packed a picnic lunch, made the drive to our favorite location, spread blankets on the sand, and enjoyed the beauty of our favorite place to spend time together. 

But the beach we love is also near a city where plenty of homeless people live on the streets, so we packed extra lunch bags to hand out to anyone we saw with a need that day. Despite the fact that we were in our happy place, the kids kept their eyes peeled for someone who might need that extra meal, and watching them care so much about people whom God put in our path that day was priceless.

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5. Consider an annual hike.

Several years ago my husband had a health scare that necessitated a change in lifestyle. While he wanted to enjoy all the celebrating that traditionally accompanies the holidays, he knew he had to make Thanksgiving about something other than the food.

Every year now, he leads an annual Thanksgiving hike in the nearby foothills, and 20 or more friends join in. It has easily become his favorite way to celebrate Thanksgiving without the big meal.

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6. Consider challenging your friends and family to an epic tournament.

Board games? Flag football? Mario Kart? Chess? Bowling? Whatever your game of choice, a tournament on the day of Thanksgiving could be just what everyone needs this year. Award the winner a chocolate turkey or a bag of popcorn as a nod to the day, but enjoy what you enjoy and bring delight to the friends and family who enjoy it with you.

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7. Consider a group effort and get your Christmas cards done together.

In lieu of the big Thanksgiving meal, serve something easier and less stressful and instead make the day about loving others by getting your annual Christmas cards signed, sealed, and stamped. Divvy up the stack if there are several of you, or pass cards around for each person to sign. The beauty of this plan is that you get to focus on something other than the food, spend time together, and get something crossed off the to-do list long before the stress of the Christmas season is in full force.

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8. Consider a contemplative day of reflection.

Often when we think of contemplative practices such as prayer, meditation, and reflection, we think of being alone somewhere quiet and inspiring. But if you’ve got other ascetic personalities around you, a day focusing on the quieter aspects of our faith may be just what everyone needs this time of year. 

Journals are excellent for this. Perhaps consider a time of writing and reading aloud, accompanied by a fire in the fireplace and hot mugs of something enjoyable.

This may also be the best time to serve and take communion together. Breaking bread and drinking a cup of wine or juice and letting the focus be on the Lord’s supper is a meaningful way to not make Thanksgiving about the big meal.

Luke 22:19-21 (ESV): “And he took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, ‘This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’ And likewise the cup after they had eaten, saying, ‘This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood. But behold, the hand of him who betrays me is with me on the table.’” 

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9. Consider focusing on your artistic side.

What if Thanksgiving could be less about the food and more about rejoicing? We tend to think that feasts, music, and dancing go hand-in-hand, but that’s not necessarily the way it has to be. If you have artists and musicians amongst your friends and family, consider staging a concert or an art festival and either enjoy that jam session and artfest together, or invite the neighbors to come along.

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10. Consider carving out a true day of rest.

Maybe a genuine day of rest is just what your soul and body need this year. It’s entirely okay to tell your family and friends that this is what you need in order to keep moving forward in health so don’t apologize for it. Napping is a glorious thing, and aren’t we all thankful when we’ve had the sleep our bodies are yearning for? 

Matthew 11:28-30 (ESV): “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

Whatever you choose to do in a year where the big meal is not the focus of your Thanksgiving celebration, remember that there is a time and a place for everything. Sometimes God calls us to do things a little counter-culturally or outside of our comfort zones, and often he shows us his glory in the midst of the unconventional. If this is your year for a Thanksgiving not centered around the big meal, go big in the way you choose. It may end up being the best Thanksgiving you’ve ever had. At the very least, you’ll never forget it!

Kendra Fletcher is a mother of eight, speaker, author, and podcaster. She is the author of Lost and Found: Losing Religion, Finding Grace, and Leaving Legalism: Learning to Love God, Others, and Yourself Again, and she regularly writes for Key Life Ministries. The Fletchers reside in California, where they play in the Pacific Ocean as often as possible. Where she writes: www.kendrafletcher.com

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10 Ways to Celebrate Thanksgiving without the Usual Big Meal