Season of (Thanks) Giving

Resources and reflections on the power of authentic connection this holiday season

November 15, 2017
Photo of two people holding hands in front of a Thanksgiving table

At Thanksgiving, with winter holidays and festive gatherings on the horizon, let's reflect on the sustaining power of food, friends, and family — and the essential need for connection across our differences and along our common hopes. At a time of unsettling violence (both in intimate realms and at massive scale), there is always a pull toward isolation. But one of the most hopeful things we can do is to choose connection, kindness, and understanding. We can focus on giving — both to our family and friends, and to the community around us.

Nothing supports connection more than food and the shared rituals of mealtime. Here, we've pulled together some resources that we'll be turning to this holiday season — both for inspiration and for tactical support.

Family Recipes, Family Histories

In "The Food Tells the Story," Bri DiRosa reflects on how family recipes can conjure vivid memories of now-departed relatives, cementing family lore.

"When my boys grow up, I don’t know which recipes and stories they’ll take with them. But just as the old recipes have family stories to tell, every time we cook together or sit down to the table for dinner as a family, I know we’re spinning new stories that they can share with their children one day."

Conversation starters to help tell the stories behind your family recipes:

  • Where did the recipe come from?
  • Who do you remember making this recipe for you? Who taught you to make it?
  • When and where did you typically eat this food growing up?
  • Was this a special occasion food, or an everyday food?
  • Why is this food special or meaningful for you?

In "Tasting History," high school teacher Jessica Lander says that for her immigrant and refugee students, who've traveled great distances to settle in this new land, food is not just comforting — it's an essential connector and a vital aspect of identity. So she decides to build a unit around it.

"Having heard the immigrant stories of a century ago, my students will have a chance to share their own stories. Together, we're going to write a global cookbook that retraces their steps, uncovers their histories, and celebrates their native cultures."

Nothing supports connection more than food and the shared rituals of mealtime. And these rituals do more than make us happy and full: they bolster our long-term health, emotional well-being, and sense of belonging.

Table Talk: Keep it Meaningful (and Civil)

Resources from the Family Dinner Project can help make holiday gatherings special — and (relatively) stress-free. The key advice: Slow down and focus on the positive.

A Communal Responsibility

Preparing for a meal with dozens of guests and courses is a lot of work — but it doesn't need to (and shouldn't!) fall on one person's shoulders. Children and teens can be empowered with responsibilities: setting the table, making decorations, or preparing a side dish. Parents can take this as an opportunity to relinquish some control, too. (Says Leah, "Every year, my mother seems surprised that her adult daughters can use the stove without supervision!") Making Caring Common offers advice for helping young people understand that their obligation toward others can be just as important as sports, clubs, and grades.

Explore the Real History

Children may come home from school reciting a lovely story about the First Thanksgiving: the Pilgrims escaped England, the Native Americans taught them to farm, they sat down and shared a feast, and America has been been harmoniously celebrating ever since. But we know that the real history of Thanksgiving and colonization is much more complicated. NPR Ed, Scholastic, Plimoth Plantation, and others provide resources and advice for using the holiday to talk to kids about critically examining the past, and being more tolerant in the future.

Put the Focus on the "Giving"

Each year, on the Tuesday after Thanksgiving, the Family Dinner Project joins a national movement called #GivingTuesday, an attempt to counter the consumption and commercialism of Black Friday with a day that's focused on intentional giving. This year, #GivingTuesday is November 28.

Cultivating a tradition of giving can sometimes feel forced, or can lead to awkward service one-offs. (Says Bari, "This is the time of year I mostly feel guilty that I haven't magically produced an 11-year-old boy who spontaneously wants to donate his old toys.") But we can use this Thanksgiving holiday as an incentive to build a more sustainable giving tradition. 

There is a complete kit of resources here, including how to:

About the Author

Bari Walsh
Bari Walsh is the senior editor of Usable Knowledge.
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Leah Shafer
Leah Shafer is the staff writer for Usable Knowledge.
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Usable Knowledge is a trusted source of insight into what works in education — translating new research into easy-to-use stories and strategies for teachers, parents, K-12 leaders, higher ed professionals, and policymakers. Usable Knowledge is produced at the Harvard Graduate School of Education by Bari Walsh (senior editor) and Leah Shafer (staff writer). Contact us at uknow@gse.harvard.edu.