Neither costumes nor elaborate decorations are required. There are no gifts, and it’s not tied to a specific religion.
In many ways, Thanksgiving is a fairly straightforward celebration: It’s all about family and food.
But that simplicity doesn’t take away from the holiday’s meaning, which is bound up in tradition and the notion of giving thanks for life’s blessings.
Barbara Fiese, a professor of psychology at Syracuse University, has been studying family rituals for 15 years. She thinks rituals capture how families work together as a group, and they help explain emotional connections and bonds.
“They provide a sense of belonging,” Fiese said.
Rituals show that people belong to a group larger than themselves, says Fiese. Traditions also create sense of heritage and a family identity. Rituals, she says, are “repositories of emotion,” which are unique to each family.
Traditions can be as simple as a stuffing recipe that has been passed down for generations or can focus on highlighting values, such as saying grace or expressing gratitude.
Bend residents Anita and Rob Moore wanted their children, Carly and Alex, ages 8 and 6, respectively, to understand the importance of feeling thankful on Thanksgiving. So, about two years ago, the couple started a “gratitude box.”
When the Moores sit down to dinner on Sunday nights in the fall, they each write down something they are grateful for and place it inside the gratitude box, which is covered in silly decorations.
Anita Moore likes the ritual because “it brings an awareness to the season.”
She says the kids are allowed to express thanks for whatever they want.
The first year they started this ritual, Moore said, Alex expressed thanks for the same thing each week: Thomas the Train.
While Moore says she would have liked her son to say he was thankful for something like family or friends, being thankful for Thomas was OK, too. In fact, this highlighted something Moore had not previously considered. She realized that her son had been taught to say thank you after receiving a gift. So in his mind, Alex associated being thankful with toys. This gave Moore a chance to explain that being grateful is “not just when someone gives you something.”
Moore explained to her son that he could be thankful for things like the way the air smelled or his friends and family.
“You can tell the gum drop ‘thank you’ for being so delicious,” Moore said.
Importance of ritual
Fiese says rituals can take the form of everyday tasks such as eating dinner together and going to bed. But holidays are also a key time for rituals and are often structured to include extended family members and the outside community. She says that the key to holiday traditions is sheer repetition. Many of these rituals are “highly scripted” and highly anticipated because they are done in certain ways each year.
Fiese says many traditions revolve around food and the use of a recipe that has been in the family for years.
“They evoke a lot of feelings of comfort,” Fiese said.
These food items allow family members to recall a memory they associate with a particular time or place. Rituals can also take the form of inside jokes, nicknames and games. Fiese believes rituals do not have to be symbolic or ask deep questions to be meaningful. But she says taking time to talk about gratitude and being thankful “is always a good thing.”
Fiese says rituals and traditions naturally change and evolve. Families with children have to adapt their rituals as the children grow. What works for preschoolers isn’t necessarily going to work for adolescents, says Fiese. For instance, sitting at the kids’ table during Thanksgiving may seem fun and special for a 5-year-old, but not for a 15-year-old, Fiese says.
And while she believes in the importance of rituals, Fiese also believes that families should not cling to traditions that do not work for them.
Families, she says, should constantly re-evaluate rituals to determine what’s working and what’s not working. When family members think about the ritual, do they feel obligation and dread?
“Is anticipating bringing joy or is anticipating bringing conflict?” said Fiese.
She suggests dropping anything that creates tension or ill feelings.
Fiese says when people are interviewed about which rituals are most important to them, the results are clear.
“Things that are the most meaningful to people are typically the least elaborate,” said Fiese. Peoples’ favorite traditions are “rarely part of some sort of long, drawn-out preparation,” Fiese said.
She recommends that families sit down before the holidays and discuss three things that they are really looking forward to and three things they could do without. This kind of discussion can help families eliminate some of the more stressful aspects, while focusing on the elements that are more meaningful for them.
Mike Robbins, a motivational speaker and the author of “Focus on the Good Stuff: The Power of Appreciation,” believes Thanksgiving is a good opportunity for families to do something they should be doing every day: being thankful.
Sometimes, offering thanks or complimenting others can make people feel a bit uncomfortable.
“People need an excuse to do it,” said Robbins.
And for many families, Thanksgiving is the perfect excuse.
Robbins tries to say things he is grateful for every day.
“We believe that the more you practice it, the more you do it, the easier it becomes,” Robbins said.
He doesn’t think that saying what you are thankful for can get old.
“We complain every day; that doesn’t seem to get old,” said Robbins.
Robbins does think families should change their methods so the routine stays fresh.
As kids get older, Robbins says they can get into “cool mode” and dismiss parents’ attempts. He suggests the best way to get kids on board is for parents to model the behavior they want to see and for them to take the ritual seriously, whether it’s going around the table, saying what they are thankful for or complimenting one another. Robbins says parents should avoid lecturing teenagers about feeling thankful, which will only serve to make them feel guilty or annoyed. Instead, he suggests parents try to be genuine and talk about times in their own lives when they’ve taken things for granted and why it is important to be grateful.
Carol Weisman, the author of “Raising Charitable Children,” says many parents are concerned about making sure their children appreciate what they have.
“They really don’t want to raise money-grubbing little brats,” she said.
Thanksgiving offers families an opportunity to bring up those topics. The Weisman family shares the tradition of going around the table and talking about what they are thankful for, which she says have run the gamut from Ninja Turtles to family.
When Weisman’s children were little, they also started a rather unusual tradition that focuses on charity. During Thanksgiving, they would outline how much money they wanted to donate that year, and the family would sit and talk about where they wanted the money to go. Weisman calls it the “joy and sadness meeting,” because they would talk about what during that year had brought them joy and what had brought them sadness. Then, they would use those thoughts to give them ideas about where and how to donate the money.
Weisman says they would ask each other, “How would you like to change the world in the next year?”
She says this annual tradition also helps spark intense discussions about a range of topics, including health care and teen pregnancy.
In addition, Weisman would provide a list of the charities they had already given to that year. She thinks this is an important step for families.
“Many of us give silently, so kids don’t see how we give,” said Weisman. Telling children about your donations also helps communicate the family’s values.
Something to look forward to
Bend resident Jacqueline Brown recalls fondly the Thanksgiving Day celebrations from her childhood in Guadalajara, Mexico.
Brown says her family was one of the few she knew to celebrate Thanksgiving, because her mother was American. Every year, the family gathered together, dressed up, ate turkey and offered a blessing.
“It’s always been an important part of our lives,” Brown said.
Her father’s family attended the holiday and thought it was a fun celebration.
Brown remembers each family member taking a turn to say something that they were thankful for. Since Brown’s mother returned to the U.S., the family members in Mexico no longer celebrate Thanksgiving, but Brown says they miss it.
Now, Brown spends Thanksgiving with her husband, Dave, their three children and other family members. This year’s holiday will be particularly meaningful for the Browns.
Brown’s 5-year-old daughter, Isabella, is undergoing chemotherapy treatments right now to treat a rare blood disease.
“We are overwhelmed with what we’re going through with her,” Brown said.
Thanksgiving, she says, is something to look forward to.
“Everybody will have a chance to be thankful for something,” Brown said.
Family, undoubtedly, will be at the top of Brown’s list.