A New Kind of Thanksgiving

10 ways to celebrate even when you're not with family.

Ah, Thanksgiving. Most of us spent our formative years unhappily relegated to the kid’s table but were thrilled nonetheless to pilfer the dark meat from the platter making its rounds. The ideas of family and Thanksgiving dinner seem as inextricably linked as turkey and tryptophan.

But what happens when, almost immediately after graduating to the adult’s table, we find ourselves having graduated to a new phase of life—one that might take us hundreds or even thousands of miles away from our childhood homes, childhood friends, and childhood traditions? What alternatives exist for the momentarily orphaned among us who find ourselves with no family within a 300-mile radius come November? Plus, many of us have job commitments that negate the freedom that the four-day weekend promises. Others simply live too far away to financially shoulder the cost of a plane ticket so close to Christmastime. For others still, Thanksgiving simply isn’t as prioritized in their families as it is in others.

Modern Thanksgivings involve giving thanks in the unlikeliest of places with the unlikeliest of people: A new kind of family, people who don’t share bloodlines or any particular lineage. Together, they’re rewriting what being thankful means, and how it is expressed in the third weekend of November. For many twenty-somethings—those who hail from happy families and those who don’t—Thanksgiving represents a chance to revel in time spent together with loved ones (not necessarily family, but most likely friends), to participate in forming new traditions and new memories.

If you’re not going to be with family this year, for whatever reason, here are ten ways to celebrate Thanksgiving in some of those new traditions, creating new memories along the way:

Perkins/Village Inn/IHOP/Denny’s/Other “family” restaurant

These places are the ideal settings to eat a lot of semi-good and greasy food (and, if we’re honest, doesn’t that describe a lot of our Thanksgiving favorites?) and to hang out for hours upon hours. Grab a bunch of friends, settle into some comfortable booths and enjoy the free coffee refills for a day of thanks. Plus, you can get pie at most of these fine eateries! Bonus.


This one might seem weather-dependent, but that’s only if you don’t get creative (and yes, summer-y climate dwellers, you should go outside). Regardless of where you go, pack a picnic basket full of summer favorites crossed with traditional Thanksgiving fare: Turkey sandwiches, potato salad (instead of mashed potatoes), cranberry jam, sweet potato fries/potato chips and, of course, apple pie. Put down a checkered table cloth, grab a guitar to start a singalong and make your Thanksgiving mobile this year.

Visit a nursing home or hospital

Sometimes in our planning, we
forget about those in our community who are physically unable to join
family or friends for a Thanksgiving dinner. So work with your friends to find a nursing home or hospital that might let you bring
Thanksgiving food (and hopefully some good conversation) to people who
might not get visitors very often. Just make sure to verify with the
officials you talk to what kind of food to bring to avoid any dietary

Friendly potluck

The most obvious one on the list: Invite a bunch of friends over. Have each of them bring a dish to share. And then, share. You’ll be surprised how amazing the day becomes (and how good of cooks your friends are).

Progressive dinner

A variation of the potluck idea, this one is a bit more involved. Essentially, you’ll move from place to place for each course of the Thanksgiving dinner. One person will host pre-dinner drinks and hors d’oeuvres, the next person will host a soup/salad/bread course, the next person will host the main meal and so on. That way the responsibility isn’t all on one person or on one home. Plus, you get to walk off your meal as you get from place to place.

Road trip

Just because you’re not traveling to see family doesn’t mean you can’t travel. Pile a group of friends in the car and head out to see places you’ve always wanted to go but have never gotten a chance. And if you have Friday off, even better—make a long weekend out of it and see how far you can get. Just make sure to find places to stay along the way. And for your dinner, stop at a local truckstop or roadside cafe—their food is probably just as good as what would survive hours in the car.

Thanksgiving luau

Just because it’s freezing outside doesn’t mean you have to give in. Throw a Hawaiian-luau for Thanksgiving this year. Make Hawaiian shirts and tacky grass skirts mandatory. Serve Polynesian food (get ready to hone your fish-cooking skills), listen to terrible Tiki-music and embrace the kitsch with your decor. And don’t forget that a limbo contest is a necessity.

Thanksgiving trilogy

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Thanksgiving is a perfect day to kick back with your belly full of turkey and gravy and watch a movie. But why stop there? Have you always meant to watch that one trilogy but you’ve just never gotten around to it? So have a trilogy party. No one’s going to complain if you say, “Hey, after dinner, who wants to watch all three Godfather movies?” Besides, you can watch the first two and then sleep through the third one and be even happier. Other trilogies: Lord of the Rings, The Matrix, Back to the Future, Indiana Jones (it’s a quadrilogy, but still), Star Wars (two trilogies), Free Willy, Scream, Jurassic Park and the Three Colors Trilogy.

Serve in a soup kitchen or a homeless shelter

Chances are, your church has opportunities to serve in a homeless shelter or a soup kitchen. It’s a great activity for a group of friends or a small group to engage in together—it’ll make you thankful for what you have and it’ll compel you to think outside of yourself and your own context. And on Thanksgiving, of all days, that’s certainly not a bad thing.

Game day

Holidays are the perfect times to break out those games that take way too long to play under normal circumstances—think Risk, Monopoly, Settlers of Catan and pretty much any game that involves things like “hit points.” Try setting up a different game in each room, so people can pick and choose what they want to play. The nerds will flock to Settlers, while the people who just want to laugh a lot will head to Catch Phrase or Apples to Apples. Plus, if you get bored with one game, there’s literally another one right around the corner.

If you're not with family, how are you going to celebrate Thanksgiving?


J.J. Carlson


J.J. Carlson commented…

Game day is an excellent option. I am a huge fan of Settlers of Catan, so this immediately stuck out to me.

Unfortunately for me, all my friends are going to be going to see family, so I will be by myself. I plan to drive to an animal shelter and visit with the dogs. It should be a good time, and I might even adopt one (my dog recently passed away, and I'm thankful for him and his long, loving life).


kimstave commented…

For the past 7 years, my husband & I have lived in Lithuania where we've worked at LCC International University. There is a significant expat community at the school, and since so many of us are Americans, over the years we've created our own Thanksgiving traditions to make up for the loss of being with family. One of the most fun (albeit pathetic) is our annual Thanksgiving evening gathering at the only American food joint in the country: you guessed it! McDonalds. We pack in & order chicken sandwhiches (in place of turkey) & apple pies (in place of pumpkin) and talk about what we'd be doing in the States. A couple years ago 45 of us packed it out (and the staff thought we were nuts)!
Then on the Saturday after we always have a big staff/faculty Thanksgiving Potluck that all nationalities are invited to. It's a great time of introducing our American traditions to those from other cultures & to share in community what we're thankful for. The potluck is always followed by a Christmas decorating party, since after all, the school needs to be decorated for Christmas & isn't that the way it is in the States, anyway? As soon as the turkey-induced coma wears off, it's all about Christmas!
We certainly miss our families...but wouldn't trade the memories & opportunities we've had within this rich community for anything. We have much to be thankful for.

Nathan Richardson


Nathan Richardson commented…

wait a minute, free willy is a trilogy?


Anonymous commented…

I am in Australia this Thanksgiving, and since they don't celebrate it, I've decided to introduce the tradition to all my friends by throwing a Thanksgiving Supper. (Supper here is actually the tea & snacks "meal" you have AFTER dinner.) It's too hot to do a big, gorgeous turkey, and this option is cheaper too!

I think the important thing is that we all have a few moments together to reflect on the things we really are thankful for!


Anonymous commented…

My wife and celebrated Thanksgiving with our small group from church and had so much fun! We did the "friendly potluck;" we brought the turkey (my first time cooking one and it turned out excellent!), a mac & cheese casserole, crescent rolls, apple crisp, cranberries and blue stuff.

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