Wondering when Thanksgiving is this year and looking for fun things to do on Thanksgiving day? Try any of the Thanksgiving traditions on this list of Turkey Day celebration ideas with your family and friends. Below you can find everything you need to make Thanksgiving meaningful including traditional Thanksgiving menu items, recipes, games, decorations, and crafts!
Remember, this is a can-do list of Thanksgiving tradition ideas, not a must-do list. Pick a new Thanksgiving tradition or two to try with your family this year!
Thanksgiving Tradition FAQ’s
Before we share our list of unique and classic Thanksgiving traditions and celebration ideas, we thought we would answer a some frequently asked questions about Thanksgiving (also known as Turkey day), Thanksgiving traditions, and when Thanksgiving is celebrated including this year’s date in both the United States and Canada.
What is Thanksgiving?
Thanksgiving is celebrated in both the United States and in Canada in order to give thanks for a bountiful harvest. In modern days it has become common to give thanks not only for the bounty that we have been given at harvest, and the food on our table, but to be grateful for all of the gifts that we have been given throughout the entire year.
Thanksgiving is traditionally celebrated with the most classic Thanksgiving tradition of all, a turkey dinner with all the fixings (or vegetarian alternative) shared between family, friends, and neighbors. Thanksgiving is also referred to as “Turkey Day” due to the fact that the traditional Thanksgiving menu features turkey as the main dish.
Why is Thanksgiving a Tradition?
The first Thanksgiving was a feast celebrated by the Pilgrims and the American Indians after the first harvest in the new world in October of 1621. The feast was said to last three days and occurred at the Plymouth plantation in Massachusets.
When they arrived in the new world, the pilgrims had trouble growing their own food and suffered from terrible famines and numerous diseases. Many of the first American settlers died as a result.
After the American Indians showed the pilgrims how to grow crops such as corn, they were finally able to harvest their own food. When the pilgrims received the gift of their first harvest, they made a huge Thanksgiving dinner to celebrate and thank God for the bounty that they had received.
This first Thanksgiving celebration was not only a way to give thanks to God and the American Indians for their help but also to celebrate the bounty of their first harvest. This first “thanks for giving” harvest celebration has become what we know as “Thanksgiving” today.
What are Thanksgiving Traditions?
Thanksgiving Traditions consist of how Thanksgiving is celebrated from household to household. Thanksgiving traditions are thus the rituals, routines, and holiday rhythms that you do each year on or around Thanksgiving day.
Below, we have curated a list of classic Thanksgiving celebration ideas and unique traditions you can try with your family this year. Meaningful Thanksgiving family traditions like those listed below can help make the holidays a special time of year.
When is Thanksgiving Celebrated?
Thanksgiving is celebrated in both Canada and the United States after the fall harvest. In Canada Thanksgiving is celebrated on the second Monday in October, while Thanksgiving is celebrated on the fourth Thursday in November in the United States.
The difference in harvest dates has to do with the fact that the growing season in Canada typically ends before the growing season in the United States due to their positions on the globe relative to the equator.
My family and I have had the good fortune of living in both the US and in Canada and have been gifted with enjoying the fall harvest and Thanksgiving traditions with family and friends in both countries. As a result, we have been given a greater appreciation of how much we have to be grateful for.
How is Thanksgiving Celebrated?
Thanksgiving is celebrated in both the United States and in Canada in order to remind ourselves to give thanks for the bounty that we are given at harvest, and throughout the year. In modern days it has become common to give thanks not only for the food on our table but to be grateful for all of the gifts that we have been given.
Thanksgiving is traditionally celebrated with a big turkey dinner shared between family and friends. Thanksgiving dinner traditionally includes the foods that were said to be served at the first Thanksgiving; turkey, stuffing, potatoes, cranberry sauce, gravy, and seasonal vegetable side dishes such as corn or green beans.
Today, Thanksgiving is often celebrated as a day to give thanks for what we have.
What Day is Thanksgiving or Turkey Day?
In the United States Thanksgiving is traditionally celebrated on the fourth Thursday in November, while Thanksgiving is traditionally celebrated on the second Monday in October in Canada.
What day is Thanksgiving this year?
Canadians celebrate Thanksgiving on October 8, 2018, while Americans celebrate Thanksgiving on November 22, 2018.
20 Thanksgiving Traditions to Start with Your Family
Thanksgiving is traditionally celebrated to give thanks for a bountiful harvest and to give thanks for the bounty that we are given at harvest, and throughout the year.
This collection of Thanksgiving Traditions can help you and your family create meaning in your lives and memories that last a lifetime. You may have already heard of some of these Thanksgiving traditions, but we are hoping that you can find something new and exciting to add to your Thanksgiving celebrations!
Many of these Thanksgiving tradition ideas are fun things to do on Thanksgiving day, while other Thanksgiving traditions can be done in the days leading up to your Thanksgiving celebration.
Related: The Best Fall Art Projects for Kids
1. Host or Attend a Thanksgiving Dinner
The most classic Thanksgiving tradition is to host or attend a Thanksgiving Dinner with family, friends, and/or neighbors.
Traditionally, a Thanksgiving turkey is served on Thanksgiving. However, some chefs have come up with some amazingly creative meal substitutes over the years including deep-fried turkeys, and vegetarian and vegan Thanksgiving dinner options.
If no one feels like cooking or doing the dishes this year, reserve a table at your favorite local restaurant. Some families eat a traditional Thanksgiving dinner at a restaurant each year as a family tradition and you can too!
Another idea is to plan a Thanksgiving vacation complete with a new and unique or traditional Thanksgiving family meal.
What are the foods served at a traditional Thanksgiving dinner?
Thanksgiving dinner traditionally includes a roasted turkey with foods that are similar to the foods said to be served at the first Thanksgiving. However, the pilgrims did not eat the exact same foods that we put on our Thanksgiving table today.
Instead, the pilgrims probably had a feast filled with local fowl, venison, maybe a wild turkey or two, and seasonal foods that they were able to grow, harvest, and prepare with the limited resources that they had available. There were no candied yams with marshmallows or deep-fried turkeys in Massachusetts in 1621!
Today, a traditional Thanksgiving menu with turkey often includes stuffing, potatoes, cranberry sauce, gravy, pumpkin pie, and seasonal vegetable side dishes associated with the fall harvest such as corn or green beans.
Of course, the traditional menu items served for Thanksgiving dinner can vary from family to family and table to table. As an example, in my family, the potatoes must be served mashed with homemade gravy, while my husbands family always made sure to include candied yams with their Thanksgiving meal.
Today our family likes to include local organically grown foods from our local farmers market in our Thanksgiving dinner. We have made going to the Farmers market before Thanksgiving to pick local fresh foods for our Thanksgiving meal a family tradition we love to do every year.
Traditional Thanksgiving Menu
Click on the blue hyperlinked text for the recipe and cooking directions for each traditional Thanksgiving menu item listed below.
- Oven roasted turkey or vegetarian option.
- Stuffing cooked inside the turkey. Stuffing is traditionally made with cornbread, however, many other delicious variations exist today.
- Potatoes and/or yams; mashed, scalloped, baked, roasted, candied, etc.
- Turkey gravy – made with freshly roasted turkey drippings.
- Cranberry sauce; whole berries, jellied or another cranberry alternative. Try our pumpkin cranberry bread!
- A seasonal vegetable side dish made with corn, green beans, etc.
- Pumpkin pie! Make your family’s favorite pumpkin pie recipe with homemade pumpkin puree for a fresh from the garden taste you just can’t get out of a can!
2. Plan a Thanksgiving Destination Vacation and Make it a Family Tradition
Make a vacation destination a Thanksgiving tradition in your family. A Thanksgiving experience gift the whole family can enjoy year after year!
My brother and I will always remember the year our father took us to Disneyland for Thanksgiving vacation. We stayed in the Disneyland Hotel and had a table reserved for Thanksgiving Dinner in the grand ballroom.
I know a few families that make a destination vacation a family tradition instead of hosting a family meal and doing all the dishes, and they love it! Some families chose the same vacation spot every year, while others choose a new family Thanksgiving destination vacation or cruise every year.
3. Make a Thankful Tree for Thanksgiving
A thankful tree is a Thanksgiving decoration that can be a Thanksgiving table centerpiece or Thanksgiving home decor.
There are many ways to design and use a thankful tree. The one thing that they all have in common is cultivating an attitude of gratitude in the home. Making and decorating one is a Thanksgiving tradition the whole family can enjoy.
Some people put their thankful tree up on the first of November to use as a Thanksgiving advent of sorts. Simply write things that you are most thankful for throughout the month and add them to your Thankful tree to decorate it.
Other families choose to place their Thankful tree on the Thanksgiving dinner table as an interactive centerpiece and encourage their guests to decorate it while they wait for dinner to be served. Have a look at our top 10 thankful trees for more ideas!
Our family loves decorating trees so much we have made two types of thankful trees for Thanksgiving. One of our thankful tree’s is made with bare branches and real preserved fall leaves, (Thankful leaf pictured above) and the other is made with clay gratitude leaves. (thankful tree with quote pictured above)
Our daughter loves decorating trees so much that we also decorate an Easter Tree in the spring, a butterfly tree in the summer, a thankful tree in the fall and of course a Christmas tree filled with homemade Christmas ornaments in the winter. Click on the links for directions to each DIY tree trimming project.
The Best Thankful Tree Kits
If you don’t feel like making your own thankful tree craft, you can purchase one of these thankful tree kits instead! If you click to purchase, we may earn a small commission with no cost to you.
- Fall Thanksgiving Party Thanksgiving Door Kit
- Standing Tree of Thanks Kit
- DIY Bulletin Board Set – Tree of Thanks
Readymade Thankful Tree Options
- Thankful Tree Photo Display
- Artbox Large Black Tree Wall Decal
- Bulletin Board Tree with Animals
- LED Light Maple Tree
Thankful Tree Ornament Ideas
Use any of these ornaments for your thankful tree this year!
- Clay Gratitude Leaves Craft
- Wood Slice Ornaments
- Colorful Magic Color Scratch Fall Leaves
- Paper fall leaf Ornaments
- Colorful Leaves for Thanksgiving
- Preserved Fall Leaves
4. Decorate the House for Thanksgiving or Harvest with Fall Decor
Use any of the DIY and ready-made Thanksgiving decoration ideas below to add a festive touch to your home and Thanksgiving celebrations!
Thanksgiving Decorations: DIY and Readymade Thanksgiving Decoration Ideas
- Decorate with gourds and pumpkins from your local pumpkin patch
- Turkey leaf mason jar lanterns (pictured below)
- DIY Thankful trees
- Indian corn wreath DIY
- Canning jar lid pumpkin
- Thanksgiving table runner
- Burlap give thanks garland
- Thanksgiving decorations
- Lighted fall garland
- Fall wreath
5. Make an Embroidered Thanksgiving Tablecloth
Make an embroidered Thanksgiving tablecloth that you reuse traditionally year after year like this hand embroidered tablecloth filled with everyone’s names. Over the years a hand embroidered Thanksgiving tablecloth becomes a treasured keepsake to pass down from one generation to the next.
6. Attend a Harvest Celebration or Fair
Another fun thing to do in the weeks leading up to Thanksgiving is to attend a harvest celebration or fair. Check your local family resource guide or ask google about a harvest fair near you.
7. Read Children’s Thanksgiving Books and Books about the Fall with the Kids
We have compiled an amazing book list of children’s Thanksgiving gratitude books that inspire thankfulness and fall books for kids that you can read with your kids.
8. Attend or Watch a Thanksgiving Day Parade
Does your city or town put on a Thanksgiving day parade? Sign up to join the procession or bring the family down to watch it.
The Macy’s Thanksgiving day parade is the quintessential Thanksgiving day parade. If you can’t attend you can watch it on TV!
9. Serve Others in Need
On Thanksgiving, a lovely tradition is to take the time to serve those in need. Volunteer in soup kitchens or at any organization serving food to those less fortunate. They always appreciate a few extra helping hands to make sure everyone gets fed on Thanksgiving.
10. Visit a Local Farm
The pilgrims served locally grown freshly harvested foods for their first Thanksgiving, and we can too! Give thanks for the bounty of the harvest just like the pilgrims, by providing locally harvested and raised food on your Thanksgiving table.
Make it a family tradition to gather fresh locally raised and grown foods for your Thanksgiving dinner. If traveling to a local farm to collect foods for your feast is not possible, take the family to your local farmers market to purchase organically grown and raised foods whenever possible.
11. Enter a Thanksgiving Turkey Trot or Thanksgiving Race
A turkey trot is a running race that usually occurs on or around Thanksgiving Day all over the United States. This tradition started as a means to combat the over “stuffed” feeling many Americans feel after gorging on a traditional Thanksgiving feast.
Enter a turkey trot near you on Thanksgiving to burn off calories before your traditional Thanksgiving meal. Invite your family to join you if they are willing. A little friendly family competition keeps a family happy and healthy.
Find a turkey trot near you HERE!
12. Give Thanks Around the Table During Your Thanksgiving Meal
Many families spend time sharing what they are thankful for as they sit around the Thanksgiving table enjoying a traditional Thanksgiving meal together. Simply take turns sharing at least one thing you are grateful for. For more ideas check out this fun list of gratitude activities and the Thanksgiving gratitude activities you can try below.
13. Express your Gratitude with Thanksgiving Gratitude Activities and Crafts
We have put together a fun collection of gratitude activities and crafts you can try for Thanksgiving. Just click on the link to see them all!
14. Go for a Walk after Thanksgiving Dinner
Like turkey trot races, this Thanksgiving tradition happened to get people outside to move their bodies and burn off some of the excess calories that a traditional Thanksgiving menu provides.
Go for a stroll with the whole family after your Thanksgiving dinner to enjoy the seasonal sights that make the autumn one of the most gorgeous times of the year. Enjoy a fall scavenger hunt with the kids while you are out there!
15. Play Thanksgiving Games
A common family Thanksgiving tradition is to play Thanksgiving games. Playing games is a fun thing to do on Thanksgiving, and a great way to pass the time with the family while waiting for a delicious Thanksgiving meal to cook.
Wanna play a Thanksgiving game the whole family can enjoy together? Try these Thanksgiving gratitude games, or these Thanksgiving game ideas you can find HERE, or try a new board game the whole family will LOVE!
16. Make Thanksgiving Crafts with the Kids
Spend time connecting with your children over the break–make traditional Thanksgiving crafts with the kids this year! We hope you enjoy this simple collection of Thanksgiving craft ideas kids can make.
- Harvest Pumpkin Watercolor Art
- Burlap Handprint Turkey Placemats
- Thankful Pumpkin Craft Kit
- Turkey Leaf Crafts
- Thanksgiving Thankful Craft Kit
- Handprint and Footprint Turkey Craft
- Thanksgiving Apple Turkey Craft
- Turkey Mason Jar Lantern
- Thanksgiving Thankful Turkey Craft Kit
- Clay Gratitude Leaves
Related: The Best Fall Nature Crafts
17. Watch a Thanksgiving Movie
When I was a child one of my favorite Thanksgiving traditions was watching “A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving” with my brothers every year when it aired on Television. Check your local listings to find out when it’s airing on TV this year or purchase your own copy HERE!
18. Make a Wish on the Wishbone
Allow two family members to pull apart the turkey wishbone as they make a wish. The person that breaks off the longest piece of the wishbone will have their wish granted. If the wishbone cracks evenly, both people may have their wish come true!
19. Watch or Play Football
For many families, football and Thanksgiving traditions go together like the mashed potatoes and gravy on their Thanksgiving dinner plate. Host a family football game, or turn on the TV to watch football with the whole family while waiting for your Thanksgiving feast to cook.
20. Go to Thanksgiving Services
Many churches and other places of worship hold a special service on or around Thanksgiving. Find one near you to attend with the whole family.
20 Thanksgiving Traditions and Fun Things to do on Thanksgiving
We hope you enjoyed learning more about Thanksgiving, Thanksgiving traditions, and fun things to do on Thanksgiving. It’s the traditional things we do every year that hold the most meaning, and also create the most vivid memories to last a lifetime.
We hope you have a happy Thanksgiving!
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Nell has over 20 years of experience working with children and is the founder of Rhythms of Play. She believes in the wonder of childhood, the power of the imagination, learning through play, and getting outside in all seasons! Learn more…