November 2009

“Cause it’s important to say thank you.”
“It’s when you say thank you for your presents.”
“It was a long time ago.”

As these preschoolers tell us, Thanksgiving can be a confusing holiday! It has no costumes or presents, no candles, hearts, trees, or fireworks. It does have a turkey, but vegetarian or not, the killing of a gobbler is hard act to celebrate. So what is it that makes this a special holiday, and how do we convey that essence to our children?

In many households, Thanksgiving rituals unfold around a steamy kitchen with an outpouring of delicious aromas. Added to the mix may be football games, an early morning parade, travel, catching up with loved ones and a warm and nostalgic feeling of reunion – ingredients we adults anticipate with pleasure. That this American story is born of the peace forged between Pilgrims and “Indians” and a long ago meal of turkey and maize is lost on our toddlers. They are too young to make sense of this historic encounter, or build relevant connections between that day and ours. Finally, while Thanksgiving often includes a “thanks to God”, it is not a religious holiday.

So how do we frame this day in a way that allows our youngest to grasp its meaning and to celebrate along with us? Here are a few thoughts:

Link it to the heralding of a new season. When Thanksgiving comes, days have gotten colder. We bundle our children into jackets, hats and mittens. They play indoors more often than in the park or playground. We’ve added blankets to their beds, the heat is turned on and bedroom windows stay closed. The change of seasons is magical to a toddler. We can underscore it by noting changes as we dress for the outdoors, stroll in the park or read Keats’ “The Snowy Day” before naps. Thanksgiving marks the start of wintertime.

Celebrate the earth and with it the foods on our table. Because the concept of an autumn harvest is a stretch for city tots, it’s a good idea to make the connections as concrete as possible – to provide a here and now context. Probably the best activities are regular visits to a farmer’s market. Talk with farmers, look for those brussel sprouts on their stalks, taste apples and sip cider. If possible, allow your child to choose a fruit or vegetable that you can prepare together for Thanksgiving, maybe an acorn squash, or pumpkin. If you have the possibility, apple picking is a wonderful experience for children, as is a visit to a small, less commercial farm/vegetable garden where they can pick a carrot.

Enjoy the coming together of loved ones, some of whom travel long distances. If we are the ones traveling, our child can help us pack. The items we include will spark talk of what we will be doing. In the weeks before Thanksgiving, it can be fun to pull out a few photos of folks our child will be seeing and use them as a springboards for familiarizing conversation. We can sketch in the previous year, “I remember how full our house was and how many chairs we had to bring to the table! I remember people were watching football on TV, and you fell sound asleep on your Uncle Joe’s lap”. Soon they’ll build memories of their own, but for now you can provide the scaffolding. They’ll come to learn that Aunt Beth always makes pumpkin risotto and Alex bakes his special apple pies year after year and Carla carves the turkey. Family traditions will be remembered and renewed.

When Thanksgiving Day arrives, our children will be ready to enjoy it. We will be welcoming in a new season, enjoying food fresh from the ground and reconnecting with those we love. Certainly this is cause for celebration – and for gratitude.

Happy Thanksgiving, Everyone!