Planning a Purposeful Thanksgiving Gathering

Planning a purposeful Thanksgiving gathering is something that almost any North American can do for friends and neighbors, no matter where he or she lives. Thanksgiving is an ideal holiday to invite friends of other cultures and backgrounds to celebrate, because many people around the world have seen Thanksgiving portrayed in North American media, but few have participated in such a celebration themselves. In addition, the less-religious trappings of Thanksgiving may make your secular or devout-but-not-Christian friends more comfortable participating in your gathering than they would be in a Christmas or Easter gathering.

Here in Germany, the state church has an event called Erntedankfest, which is a harvest-related church tradition that seems to not be very celebrated in the home. Even our well-travelled, English-speaking neighbors have never had a roasted turkey meal at Thanksgiving, and most of them are curious or excited about the idea! As a young family with no relatives nearby, it would be easy for us to roast a chicken, mash some potatoes, and call it Thanksgiving. That’s what I did the first year of our marriage. But once I realized that Thanksgiving presents a great opportunity to have a purposeful party with neighbors and contacts, the work of organizing a Thanksgiving gathering for guests suddenly seemed worthwhile! Here are a few ideas for how to plan your own purposeful Thanksgiving gathering, no matter how big or small, simple or complex. (Don’t let all the ideas overwhelm you — keep the purpose of your gathering in mind, and keep it really simple, if you want!) 🍂

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Planning whom to invite

A purposeful Thanksgiving gathering is all about serving your guests and giving them an opportunity to consider God’s goodness in their own lives and be thankful to Him. Prayerfully consider how many and which guests you’d like to invite. You can include new friends or neighbors in a gathering you regularly have anyway, or plan a separate event for people to whom you want to reach out. Try to think more broadly than you have before about who could sit at your table this Thanksgiving. Consider:

  • immigrants in your neighborhood,

  • people from your neighborhood whom you don’t know well,

  • international students and their roommates or friends,

  • single friends or neighbors who don’t have family nearby,

  • someone who is new to your city or your country, or

  • someone who has had a particularly difficult year.

It is often helpful to team up with other Christian friends or families to pull off a purposeful Thanksgiving gathering. Or you can invite another Christian along whom you’d like to expose to the idea of planning your Thanksgiving gathering around guests who don’t know the God to whom you are grateful. After they see you host a purposeful Thanksgiving gathering, they may be inspired to do the same next year.

If you’re reading this just days before Thanksgiving, don’t be afraid to invite one or two more people last-minute!

Planning a date and time

Run the possible dates and times by anyone whom you’d like to partner with before inviting the rest of the guests to your Thanksgiving gathering. You may also then want to ask two or three potential guests if a date works for them, before inviting everyone.

If your guests live in North America, it makes sense to invite them around the time of the Thanksgiving long weekend. Those can be the times when immigrants or internationals feel extra lonely, because they know that others are enjoying the holiday weekend with their families, while they are home alone. If you don’t live in North America, almost any date in the fall probably works. Try to pick a time of day that works well for people in your setting. Here Friday evening seems like a good option, because people are a bit less likely to be available than they are on Saturday or Sunday, but can stay up late because they don’t have to work the next day.

Inviting people personally is always nicer than sending out a mass message to everyone at once, if possible. If you have time, creating printed invitations can be a nice way to make the event extra special (and even a piece of memorablia for the guests) but you can use whatever invitation method seems most natural in your context.

Planning a location

Your own home is usually the best place to host meals, if you’re wanting to make a personal connection with your guests. However, if you don’t have a lot of space, not to worry! You can ask a friend if you can use his or her home, rent a party room, or ask your church if you can use their space. Claire, an American whom The Serviette interviewed earlier this year, organizes a 90 person Thanksgiving party for her contacts in her German community. She has a lot of volunteer help and hosts the dinner in their church hall.

Maybe you aren’t a party planner, but you have a friend who’d love to organize a purposeful thanksgiving gathering, and you have the space in your home and he or she doesn’t. Invite them to use your space for their endeavor!

Planning food and drinks

The food and drinks at your Thanksgiving get-together can be as simple or complex as you’d like it to be. After all, if many of your guests have never celebrated Thanksgiving before, they have no expectations! (OK, except that maybe they have seen a roasted turkey in movies.) The most elaborate way is, of course, to prepare a whole traditional meal for your guests. The simplest option is to invite people over for coffee or tea and North American-style pumpkin or apple pie. Or do something in between: ask people to bring a side dish (like a salad or hot vegetable) or a drink, and prepare the main or most traditional dishes yourself. If your guests are from other cultures, it may be hard for them to bring a side dish that suits a traditional Thanksgiving meal. In this case, maybe a few international friends can come early to help with food preparation under your direction. Being allowed to help cook may make your friends feel even more included in the event, and may help them get to know you and your family better.

If you have invited vegetarian guests, talk to them about how turkey is usually the main dish, and ask if that makes them uncomfortable. (Most vegetarians living in the West are used to seeing and smelling meat, but it’s not good to assume. Some are not so comfortable with seeing the whole bird, etc.) If you’re living in a place where most people are vegetarians, you might — gasp! — skip the meat altogether. In any case, make sure there are enough side dishes that your vegetarian friends can eat. If Muslim friends are coming, check if they eat only Halal and see if there is the possibility of serving Halal turkey (or chicken) to them so they don’t miss out. 🍗 If you have guests from more conservative cultures or backgrounds, it might be best not to serve any alcohol at your Thanksgiving meal.

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Planning decorations

If decorating is your jam, there’s lots you can do to make your space purposefully cozy for your Thanksgiving celebration. Nameplates for each spot at the table, thankfulness reminders on the walls, banners with Bible verses about thankfulness — there are lots of opportunities to use even the decorations at your Thanksgiving meal to share to Whom you are thankful. If decorating is not your jam, or if you just don’t have time, this is something you can easily ask a crafty friend — or crafty children — to help you with. I heard of a mom who gets her children to create centrepieces for the tables, giving them a fun way to be involved in hospitality.

Planning conversation and activities

Thanksgiving doesn’t have a directly Bible-related history like Christmas and Easter do, but the story of the pilgrims, and the whole idea of being thankful begs the question — to Whom are we thankful? Your Thanksgiving gathering is a natural time to include something about the One to Whom you are most thankful.

Here are a few ideas for incorporating meaningful elements in your Thanksgiving gathering. The ideas marked with an asterisk (*) were shared by Elizabeth, who regularly hosts Muslims in her home for Thanksgiving or other special events in the USA.

  • Tell the story of the first Thanksgiving in North America. Explain whom the pilgrims were thanking and why they were thankful. Use pictures, a children’s story book, or even a YouTube video to help you tell the story.*

  • Have everyone share something they’re thankful for. There are lots of ideas for how this can be done: some write something they’re thankful for on a leaf and hang it on a tree. Others write on multiple leaves, spread the leaves on the table, and have the guests read them off. If your guests do not know each other, this can also be a good icebreaker.

  • Pray before the meal and thank God for His goodness in the past year.

  • Read a Bible passage before or after the meal, maybe a psalm of thanksgiving, like Psalm 100 or 107.*

  • Put a Bible verse or thankfulness quotation on each plate as part of the decor. Have the guests read the verse or phrase before the meal begins.

  • Sing a song or hymn with a Thanksgiving theme (such as Great is Thy Faithfulness, We Gather Together or The Doxology).* 

  • Ask your friends some questions that may give you insight into their culture(s):

    • Ask if their culture has some kind of harvest or autumn festival or gratefulness day, and how it is celebrated.

    • Talk about the words “thank you” and whether they are used in your friends’ culture(s). (Some cultures don’t really say thank you! Ask: “How do you express gratefulness?”)

    • Ask your friends to share what thankfulness means to them.

  • Have a time for each guest to share ways God has been faithful in the past year.*

  • Ask someone to share a devotional of some kind about thankfulness.

At first it might sound cheesy to add some of these elements to your gathering, if you’ve never done something like this before, but I think you’ll find that most guests appreciate coming to a party that has some purpose to it. Consider this: many of the special events our non-Christian friends throw lack in substance or purpose. The events are centred around good music or fancy food, but in the end, they are a bit empty because there is no real takeaway or clear purpose. Your party can be noticeably different because your party (like your life) has a purpose and direction. Remember, you’re the host, and you get to decide what kinds of activities or conversations you’d like to encourage.

The appropriateness of sharing Biblical truths through your Thanksgiving gathering probably depends on the kinds of interactions you’ve already had with the guests who are present. For example, if you’ve never even mentioned to your guests that you are a Christian, and then you invite your pastor to share a half-hour Thanksgiving sermon with the guests while they’re eating pie, your guests might feel ambushed. But be gracious and truthful, and don’t miss the opportunity to connect thankfulness to the One Whom we thank! Depending on what you are planning to do or share, you can even tip your guests off ahead of time, for example, by writing in the invitation: “We will be sharing at our party about why we celebrate Thanksgiving”. Prayerfully ask God to direct the conversations and activities at your Thanksgiving meal toward Himself.

Following up after your gathering

Take pictures at your gathering and send a photo (digitally or printed) to your guests afterward to say that you are thankful they joined you for the party. Add a thankfulness Bible verse to your note if you’d like! This little bit of follow-up can remind your guest that you’re thankful God made them, and thankful for the friendship God has given you with them!

Here’s wishing you a joyful, purposeful Thanksgiving gathering! 🍁