How to Celebrate Thanksgiving: Traditions, Family Gatherings, Games & More

It’s not just Turkey Day (although we do have a soft spot for that delicious fowl). It’s not just about football, either.

Thanksgiving is a time to get together with your family — biological or not — and friends, sit around the table, and give thanks for all of the blessings you enjoy. It’s also a great opportunity to invite those people who may be alone during the holidays to join you! 

It’s definitely a case of the more the merrier; after all, you can always get a bigger turkey and bake more pies. 

Whether you’re looking for new traditions, recipes, or even just a brief Thanksgiving history lesson — we’ve got a little bit of everything here for you. Now! On to our best suggestions on how to celebrate Thanksgiving!

Thanksgiving Day History

The first Thanksgiving dinner and celebration happened between the colonial settlers of Plymouth and the tribe of the Wampanoag, way back in 1621.

Fun fact — that first feast actually lasted three, full days. Now, who do we email to bring back THAT tradition?

Similar harvest celebrations continued to take place for more than two centuries around the colonies and the states until 1863, when President Abraham Lincoln declared it an official, bonafide, national holiday. 

Interestingly enough, the bond between the Wampanoag people and the early European colonists is one of only a tiny handful that remained peaceful over the years. 

Thanksgiving Traditions

Thanksgiving Meal

how to celebrate thanksgiving - Thanksgiving Meal

There’s no doubt about it: food is a HUGE part of the Thanksgiving tradition, and has been from the very beginning.

Today’s traditional fare usually consists of roasted and stuffed turkey, cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes and gravy, rolls, a green bean casserole and, of course, more pies than you can shake a stick at. Notably pumpkin, but no one is going to turn up their noses at apple or pecan!

 We’re going out on a limb here since no one knows the exact meal of the first Thanksgiving, but we do know the Pilgrims ate a lot of lobster, seal, and swan. Since they would have run out of sugar by this time, we can assume their pie holes were not being filled with actual pie. 

Watching Football

It’s almost as American as apple pie! Oh, wait. That’s the other sport with the ball and running (a’hem — we’re looking at you, baseball). 

Watching football has become a time honored and practically sacred Thanksgiving tradition in many families. The best part is, those oversized team tees and sweatpants are super comfy when you’ve gone back to the table for seconds and thirds… and maybe even fourths.

Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade

I grew up like many of you likely did: waking early enough to catch the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade on television while Mom was already hustling in the kitchen. The parade is the largest and most famous one in the world, and got its start in 1924. 

Break a Wishbone for Good Luck

The Etruscans (ancient Italians) started this practice because they believed chickens had divine powers. Yep, you read that right! The only thing divine about chicken these days is maybe the taste when you cook it right. After they pulled apart the bones from the bird, they would lay them in the sun to dry, and whomever touched them would make a wish (that’s where we got the term “wishbone”). 

They weren’t the only ones who did odd things with our fine feathered friend’s remains.

The Romans loved their wishbones for divining and granting wishes too. The practice gradually caught on with the people of England, who brought the rather strange tradition over with them just in time for the first Thanksgiving in America. 

Celebrate Friendsgiving

Not everyone has a family nearby, or even has a family period. And then there are others who may simply be estranged from their biological family. Enter in, Friendsgiving! 

It’s not about your blood, it’s about your bond. Friendsgiving can be religious or not, laid back or formal, and they begin their own traditions that can be built upon for years to come. 

Give Back Through Donations or Volunteer Time

Volunteering is a big part of some families’ Thanksgiving, and for good reason! It’s a day, after all, to give thanks for all of the blessings in your life. With that in mind, it’s a wonderful day to bless someone else! 

Signing up to serve at a food bank, soup kitchen or gospel mission is a popular way to spend Thanksgiving. Or, you can Tupperware up all of those yummy leftovers after the big meal to pass out to the homeless in your city.

Thanksgiving Gifts

Thanksgiving isn’t typically considered a gifting holiday, but we think that should be reconsidered. What better way to express thanks than by giving a gift to those you’re most most thankful for!

Here are some of our favorite Thanksgiving gift ideas. It’s a great new tradition to begin!

Black Friday Shopping

Who needs sleep when there are deals to be had, people? Black Friday began in the 1980s and marked the time when stores finally entered into the black from the red as far as their sales went. It’s still the biggest shopping day of the year!

Thanksgiving Worship Service

Many churches hold a Thanksgiving worship service on the Sunday prior to Thanksgiving, on Thanksgiving Day, or on the Wednesday night prior to the holiday.

Make it a tradition to give thanks to the Giver of All Good Gifts!

Thanksgiving Party Ideas

Thanksgiving Party Ideas

Thanksgiving Potluck

Doing all the work yourself can make it difficult to feel grateful and thankful, right? So, assign different dishes and tasks to everyone who is coming. And yes, that includes the kids and teens and college students! Even if they’re just making place cards or bringing ice, many hands make light work. 

Holiday Movie Marathon Party

There certainly aren’t as many Thanksgiving movies out there as there are Christmas movies, but they still exist! 

We recommend A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving, Miracle on 34th Street, Jim Henson’s Turkey Hollow, Alice’s Restaurant, Home for the Holidays, Grumpy Old Men, Pieces of April, and Planes, Trains, and Automobiles. 

Related: At-Home Movie Night Ideas

All You Can Eat Pie Bar

Whip up some fresh cream, maybe a bit of homemade caramel sauce, and ice cream and let the fun begin! This is one way how to celebrate Thanksgiving that will keep people coming back year after year.

Host a Fundraiser for a Local Food Pantry

Have your guests bring a canned food item or pass around a Pilgrim hat to collect money for the needy in your community. 

Hand Out Turkey Treat Bags

A fun project to keep the Littles busy during the football game, or so mom and dad can take an afternoon, turkey-induced nap! You can get the recipe here!

Thanksgiving Decorations

Turkey Door Hanger

This cute gobbler lets your guests know they’ve arrived at the right place! Don’t let Easter, Christmas and Halloween get all the lovin’ when it comes to decorations. 

Thanksgiving Table Place Cards

Easy enough for the kids to make with some construction paper and crayons, or simply download some more elegant ones to make your table pop (and keep Republican Uncle Gary on the opposite side of the table from Democrat Aunt Sally). 

Thanksgiving Tree

This pretty tree centerpiece brings the gorgeous autumn landscape to the Thanksgiving table! The cheery acorns, orange and yellow colors, and twinkly lights (on a timer) will look picture perfect next to all of that yummy food.

Outline Windows with Fall Leaf Garlands

Take the kids on a walk while the turkey rests and collect enough fall leaves to make a garland or some leaf rubbings! Easy peasy and it brings an autumnal hush to a busy holiday. 

DIY Pumpkin Candle Holders

YouTube video

DIY some adorable pumpkin candle holders with this handy tutorial, using mostly Dollar Store items!

Thanksgiving Menus

Thanksgiving Turkey

Is there any other aroma that just screams “Thanksgiving” more than a roasted turkey? Well, that goes without saying. This easy, no-fuss, old-fashioned recipe takes the bird to a whole new level, and we’re here for it. 

Sweet Potato Casserole

Sweet Potato Casserole Recipe
Photo Credit: Spend With Pennies

There’s something about the down-home goodness of a humble sweet potato, isn’t there? And when you whip it up into something special like the most delicious of casseroles, you’ll be in scrumptious, side-dish heaven. 

Classic Cheese Ball

YouTube video

When you need something to get your appetite going (say, when the turkey is resting and the guests haven’t quite arrived yet), a classic cheese ball is here to save the day. Eat it with crackers or fresh veggies and your belly will thank you. 

Grandma’s Famous Pumpkin Pie

It would be strange to have a Thanksgiving feast without Grandma’s Famous Pumpkin Pie! Don’t break with tradition on this one. And whatever you do, don’t forget the whipped cream. 

Thanksgiving Pomegranate Punch

how to celebrate thanksgiving - thanksgiving pomegranate punch
Photo Credit: A Couple Cooks

Yummy and thirst-quenching for adults and the kiddos alike, this delicious and pretty punch will look cheery and holiday-esque when served in stemware. So fancy!

Thanksgiving Games

Thanksgiving Friendly Feud

Laugh it up with this fun Thanksgiving version of the classic game Family Feud! Really up the anty by having prizes for the winner(s): the cheesier the better, we think!

Pie Baking Contest

Give your guests the perfect opportunity to practice their infamous recipes and bring them all to your house! Have a panel of judges (maybe the little ones?) and host your own little version of Master Chef. 

Pie Eating Contest

Now we’re talking! Maybe not everyone will want to participate, but definitely everyone will want to watch!

Fall Scavenger Hunt

Get outside and walk off some of that Thanksgiving feast with this fun Fall Scavenger Hunt! Everyone can participate with this one. 

Thanksgiving Bingo

This cute and colorful Thanksgiving Bingo game is fun for all ages and gives your family something to do while their appetites are either kicking into full gear, or they need a sit-down activity after over-eating! 

Thanksgiving Activities

I’m Thankful For…

I'm Thankful For...

Have your guests write down what they are thankful for and place the cards onto the wall, in a box to read aloud next year, or hung onto a Thanksgiving tree. 

Themed Group Photos

Cousins, babies, silly poses, mug-shot faces, do them all! Pose with the pies, snap a pic of the backyard family football game… keep snapping away. You’ll be glad you did.

Decorate Cornucopias with Paint, Leaves, and Gourds

Items that are easily found at the Dollar Tree or your local Goodwill can be transformed into something truly special and unique once you arm yourself with paint, glitter, leaves, etc!

Thanksgiving Activity Placemat

These fun, downloadable Thanksgiving placemats will keep the little ones (and maybe a few creative adults) busy for hours, while dinner is being prepared. 

Create Turkey Hands

Turkey Hands

Trace everyone’s hands and color them to look like a traditional Thanksgiving bird. This simple, fun Thanksgiving activity is always a must for kids! Not to mention they become precious and timeless keepsakes.

Read Next: Complete List of Gifting Holidays

how to celebrate thanksgiving - Pin It Image
Photo of author

Melyssa Williams

Melyssa Williams has been writing since she could hold a pen (or a quill, as she was an odd little duck).

Sadly, she was born to two loving parents who fed her broccoli, taught her manners, and raised her with...

... read more