Family Tradition Essays Thanksgiving Dinner

Thanksgiving dinner is our favorite meal of the year.  Not only is it a holiday filled with fabulous eating, family and football, but it is also the day when we give our diets a hall pass, stuffing ourselves in a way we would never dream of the other 364 days of the year. But more than the food we savor, it is the scent of the feast that we love and that endures.

The sense of smell, more than sight, hearing or even taste, is where we store our most cherished and vintage memories. Once you raise that first fork full of stuffing, you begin to breathe in a memory of your childhood. As you sit at the table with your kids, parents, aunts, cousins and friends, the homeward journey begins.

Lisa and I are getting ready for the holiday at our two homes and have asked our friends about their traditions.  While hewing to the classics, they shared their favorites. Both traditional and idiosyncratic, all are treasured like family heirlooms.

Imagine getting up on Thanksgiving morning to the luscious smell of Darryl’s pumpkin bread baking in the oven. An aromatic wake up call,  the scent might lure even our sleepy college kids out of their beds and into the kitchen for a slice and their first cup of coffee. Sharon’s kids depend on her cinnamon rolls to get the holiday started early on Thursday while Risa’s festive breakfast is French toast made with Challah and eggnog.

Slowly, the turkey begins a four, five, six-hour roast, until it’s finally ready to be presented as the centerpiece of the feast. With the bird underway, we turn our attention to the sides, where family traditions and regional preferences come into play. Many of us have dishes we prepare once a year on Thanksgiving and only Thanksgiving. Helene told us about the “Leenzil’s Thanksgiving Salad” she makes with cherry jello and Caryn offered her favorite, so-called “Cheese Jello,” which she acknowledges as sounding weird but swears her family loves it.


At Lisa C’s house, it is a corn casserole she bakes with cheese until it’s melted and bubbling. She slides a double batch into the oven so her daughters and grandsons have an extra helping to take home with them.

Though we live in New York, my kitchen smells more like my mom’s house in Texas with cornbread baking in a cast iron skillet and the roasted sweet potatoes I whip with bourbon for a souffle. Each Thanksgiving dinner, I keep my most traditional of sources, Helen Corbitt’s Cookbook close at hand.


Potatoes, stuffing, roasted butternut squash, rolls – each dish renders a unique smell. With the ever-more ready turkey roasting in the oven, these combine, creating a signature fragrance greeting guests the moment they step through our front doors.

Pumpkin pie rules on Thanksgiving but caramel apple and chocolate pecan pies sound amazing, especially if pastry chef and writer, Mindy, is the one baking.


Everyone gathers, talks, eats, takes seconds, and…..dinner ends, with a slice of pie and a side of football. Cleanup. Deep breath, rest….

If we’ve planned it just right, Thanksgiving stretches into a multi-day feast with signature leftovers as an eagerly anticipated Act Two. Sharon gushes about her mom’s turkey chile and turkey meatloaf. For Theresa, our photographer and friend, it’s turkey noodle soup.

This year, we are planning to try out the Turkey Posole soup from Katie Workman. You can find the recipe in her wonderful cookbook The Mom 100 Cookbook: 100 Recipes Every Mom Needs in Her Back Pocket.

But Thanksgiving holiday doesn’t stop on Friday when your guests arrive carrying suitcases. When you have college kids coming back for a holiday break, they long for the home-cooking that is sorely missing on their meal plans.

Lisa L received an SOS from her college daughters for matzoh ball soup. With both kids sick, and sick of dorm food, she is ready with both the soup and the TLC they can count on once they set foot in the door.

While the multiple dishes that make up Thanksgiving dinner create a complex bouquet, a big pot of soup simmering for hours on the stove has a simpler smell. More like a pot of love, the smell of Lisa’s chicken noodle soup permeates her house, filling it with both the scent of the dish and affection of the cook.

With great thanks to our friends who contributed to this story,  Mary Dell and Lisa wish you all a delicious Thanksgiving week.

Photo credit: Pumpkin pie: sea turtle


Thanksgiving is a chance for families to gather together, to feast and to enjoy being with one another. But the day can also be a meaningful time to reflect on our blessings and remember how God has been faithful in our lives.

Many families have special traditions they use to show gratitude to God and each other. Thriving Family asked parents to share a cherished tradition that has helped their family experience real gratitude amid the food and fellowship of the holiday.

The Breakfast Club

For our family, Thanksgiving Day begins early, with our family gathered around a card table in the living room to share a special, once-a-year breakfast. Between bites of poppy seed cake and sips of eggnog, we record the year's blessings on notebook paper: landing a new job, reconnecting with old friends, finding a great sale on kids' shoes, earning an A in Spanish. No item is too small for the list.

After we've filled our papers, I reach for our family's Thanksgiving Journal, which contains our lists from the past 30 years. As we sift through the pages, we remember our family's milestones: starting a new business, learning to play an instrument, hitting the home run that won the baseball championship. Tears and laughter flow freely as we read about a 4-year-old's gratefulness for a new bicycle, the swing set we inherited from a family at church, our first dog and memories of loved ones who have since passed away.

Shortly after breakfast, the turkey goes in the oven, the card table transforms into a puzzle area and the guests begin to arrive. But the heart of our Thanksgiving happens before the busyness of the day — when we add the year's memories to a growing collection of God's blessings.

—Letitia Suk

A Tree of Thanks

On my side of the family, sentiments are usually kept to oneself, so when we planned to spend Thanksgiving at my mother's place a few years back, I knew my siblings and their spouses wouldn't be comfortable participating in traditions where vocal expressions of gratitude were required. So I decided to try an idea from a kids' craft project, modified for my family.

From brown construction paper, I cut out the trunk and branches of a tree and taped it to the wall. Then I made leaves out of red, yellow and orange paper. I handed out the leaves to my siblings, their spouses and their kids, asking them to write something they were thankful for on each leaf. I told them they didn't need to write their name on it unless they wanted to.The kids were the most enthusiastic, with most of them quickly scribbling down one or two items. The adults were reluctant at first, but once they started reading the other leaves, they all wrote down at least one thankful thought. I was surprised to see some leaves with detailed, heartfelt lists, and a few relatives filled more than one leaf!

Several weeks later when I went to visit my mom, I was surprised to see the Thanksgiving tree still taped to the wall. Mom told me she enjoyed looking at it so much that she couldn't bear to take it down.

—Donna Brennan

Tablecloth of Memories

My family's favorite Thanksgiving tradition began in November 2001. I was hosting the big dinner only weeks after the 9/11 attacks. Like many Americans, we were still in shock, still hurting. We kept thinking about all the families around the country whose Thanksgiving dinners would never be the same.

As we finished our meal that year, I brought in a package of fabric pens. I asked our family and guests to write something on the tablecloth that they were thankful for. Everyone took turns writing short notes on the cloth, and we have continued to bring out the pens every year. Notes of love for family, our country and our God are arranged in an intricate puzzle across the light yellow cloth. Children's handprints are tucked in next to earnest messages of gratitude, while Great-Grandma Cusumano's shaky writing holds a special place in the center of the mosaic.

The tablecloth has become precious to our family. Every November, my children request the honor of putting out the tablecloth, just like they ask to put the angel on top of our Christmas tree. When Thanksgiving Day arrives, our guests smile and laugh as they read through the memories, while the children search to find their handprints, thrilled to see how much they've grown.

When the guests have gone home and the dishes have been put away, I take a few moments for a tradition of my own: reading the special messages left behind by my family and friends. Not all of our family members are present every year, but their words remain on the cloth, reminding me to say a prayer of thanks for each one of them.

—Joanne Kraft, from her book Just Too Busy

A Little Perspective

Thanksgiving has always been a wonderful time for our family, filled with an abundance of awesome food and meaningful memories made together. So when our church started collecting food for needy families, we felt compelled to join in. At the grocery store, our kids raced around grabbing cereals and holiday treats while my husband and I gathered more substantial items. We checked out with a full cart, dropped off the bags at church and felt good for helping the needy.

Right before Thanksgiving, when the church announced it didn't have enough people to deliver the food, my husband, Jim, volunteered our family. We were less than enthusiastic. It was one thing to run through the store throwing food in a cart, but quite another to dedicate our holiday to delivering groceries. Nevertheless, early Thanksgiving morning, we climbed into our van, picked up the boxes of food from church and rode in silence to the first address on our list, in a part of town we usually avoided.

When a man opened the door, Jim offered him the box of food and explained that we wanted to show his family the love of Christ. The man called to his wife and kids, who came to admire the turkey and big box of food on their table. The children pulled items from the box and hopped around the kitchen in delight. As we left, the father said he'd been out of work for a while, and he believed that God had sent us.

After the last delivery, we piled back into the van and drove home, talking about our unique Thanksgiving experience. During our own dinner, we still laughed and stuffed ourselves with food. But it seemed that the usual expressions of thanks came from a deeper place in our hearts.

—Jeannie Vogel

Bread of Blessings

As a child, I always looked forward to Thanksgiving. Not because of the turkey or the fact that it sometimes fell on my birthday, but because of the rolls.

Thanksgiving morning, Mom made delicious Parker House rolls and placed a small slip of paper with a silly fortune in the middle of each one. At Thanksgiving dinner, family members read their fortune out loud when they opened their roll.

Years later, I decided to continue the tradition — with a biblical twist. I typed Scriptures on small pieces of paper, tucking them in the rolls in the same way my mother had once done. Now our meals are filled with promises of God's goodness until the last roll disappears from the basket.

—Sally Jadlow

Part of the Thanksgiving Series

This article first appeared in the October/November 2011 issue of Thriving Family magazine and was originally titled "Expressions of Thanks." If you enjoyed this article, read more like it in Thriving Family, a marriage and parenting magazine published by Focus on the Family. Get Thriving Family delivered to your home by subscribing to it for a gift of any amount.

Copyright © 2011 by Letitia Suk, Donna Brennan, Joanne Kraft, Jeannie Voge and Sally Jadlow. Used by permission.

Next in this Series: Give Thanks


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