Family Thanksgiving Rituals

by Shemaiah Gonzalez

It’s not Thanksgiving without my famous Frosted Cranberry Salad. Alright, it’s only famous to my sisters and me. The three of us have fond memories of our aunt making this “salad” of lemon Jell-O, canned pineapple chunks, and cranberry sauce, topped with Dream Whip cream cheese for Thanksgiving each year. We sisters live in different states now, but we each make the dish for our families who’ve come to rely on its presence each Thanksgiving.

So often it’s these family traditions that make the holiday memorable. Rituals, new and old, can move a secular holiday into a sacred space. To gather ideas for my own family, I asked a few friends about how they create space for a spiritual approach to Thanksgiving.

Seeing Abundance

My friend Sara shared that in her family, it is the eldest person present who gives a blessing before the meal. It is a bittersweet place of honor, as the family remembers those who have stood there before, now gone. At that moment, they too are present, and her family holds each other close in gratitude.

For Sara, being grateful for all one has is a spiritual thing. It brings God into every thought that day as she thinks of how he has guided her through every struggle that year. Noticing God’s provision in her life allows Sara to see abundance where she once saw want or need.

Remembering the Labor

My friend Richard and his family have been involved in farming in some way for most of his life. To them, Thanksgiving is about the food. Richard shared it’s a time to enjoy the fruits of the earth and their labor and be thankful for them. His family has known this food from seed to harvest and from farm to table. This work puts them close to creation and gives them a different perspective on God’s bounty.

Even though my family has never worked a farm, we can experience this thoughtfulness about the foods we eat at Thanksgiving. We tend to a small garden. There is something special about eating the food that we have planted and cared for. A prayer my husband often prays before our meals came to life after hearing Richard’s story; we thank God for those who worked the land and harvested the food which now lays before us for our meals. Through Richard, I am more thoughtful about the labor that puts food on our table.

Breaking Bread

Another friend, Tanya, shared with me that although she is, as she put it, “100% secular,” she spends Thanksgiving with extended family and friends who are religious. She says she loves getting a glance into their faith. There is always a prayer before the meal, including a reading from the Bible, and they literally “break bread,” by passing a loaf around the table while each shares what he or she is grateful for—from family to jobs, to kittens, to the glory of the universe. Tanya says this bit of ritual allows her space to ponder and then share her own deep gratitude for things like the mystery of life, the many shoulders we stand on, and the many people with whom we stand.

Tanya appreciates the glimpse of faith and hopes her loved ones understand that she too has reverence for the world. Tanya’s words make me less timid about sharing my table and rituals with those who do not share my faith. They also remind me to honor and value the words of my secular friends and family.

Sharing our blessings aloud at Thanksgiving recalls the Psalms, “singing aloud a song of thanksgiving, and telling all your wondrous deeds.” (26:7) Hearing them aloud magnifies these blessings, multiplying them for those who have experienced them and those who hear them professed.

From food to family, to kittens and the mysteries of the universe, there is so much to be thankful for on Thanksgiving. Making our holiday rituals and traditions sacred is as simple as acknowledging God’s presence and inviting God into that space. When we ask God to show us our lives through his eyes, he shows us the abundance we didn’t realize was there. Even a little thing like a Frosted Cranberry Salad reminds us of love and connection between the years and miles. And for this, I give you thanks, O Lord.

Shemaiah Gonzalez

Shemaiah Gonzalez

Shemaiah Gonzalez is a freelance writer who holds a B.A. in English Literature and a M.A. in Intercultural Ministry. She thrives on moments where storytelling, art, and faith collide. Published on Busted Halo and America Magazine among others, she is obsessed with being well-rounded as she jumps from Victorian lit to Kendrick Lamar, from the homeless shelter to the cocktail party. A Los Angeles native, she now lives in Seattle with her husband and their two sons.

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