Several years ago, my then-fiance/now-husband and I ventured to combine our family Thanksgiving Day dinners into what became the biggest celebration of Thanksgiving Day that either of us had ever been a part of, let alone host. It was an amazing feat to accommodate 32 people, sitting together at what appeared to be one long, continuous table that extended from our dining room and through to our living room. It was actually several tables lined up, and there was very little room to walk around, but everyone brought a favorite home-cooked dish and marveled at the blessings that brought us all together. It took a lot of work to pull it off, but we enjoyed it so much that ever since that first colossal Thanksgiving Day we’ve been hosting the dinner since.
On the second Thanksgiving Day (which we hosted as husband and wife) I introduced a new tradition. I wanted a fun activity that everyone could do after dinner, while we all felt to full for dessert. I didn’t really want to play a game (although on the previous Thanksgiving we did have fun with a scavenger hunt game that helped everyone get better acquainted). What I came up with instead was the “Christmas Ornament Exchange”.
Here’s how it works:
When I invite everyone to Thanksgiving dinner, I ask each guest (all the children, too) to bring one ornament to give to another guest. I tell them that it does not have to cost a lot, and that they can purchase it, make it, or bring one from their collection of ornaments at home. I remind them that they can find nice ornaments at the dollar store, for example. Then I ask that they wrap it. The ornament need not be in Christmas paper – any kind of wrap or packaging will do. In fact, I encourage my guests to be as creative as they like – the idea is to have fun!
Next, I ask that each guest in a family select or make their ornament on their own. I know that moms are usually the ones who end up doing the preparation, so I urge kids to be involved in the process, and for dads to participate as well. It is more rewarding when everyone gets involved from the start.
When the day comes and my guests arrive, they set their wrapped treasures on our oversized coffee table. It is a festive sight and sets the mood for anticipated gift unwrapping. As the time comes to exchange ornaments, we sit around the room with the overloaded, colorful coffee table in the center. Starting from the youngest child to the oldest adult, we take turns selecting a package from the table. It’s so hard to make a choice when they all look so pretty!
(Here’s a tip: I always put in extra ornaments in addition to my own, in case someone forgets to bring one. If I have extras at the end, then I can give the youngest children an extra turn.) (The kids start to figure out which are from me, because I always pack some candy in with my ornaments ;-))
The reason I like to have the Christmas Ornament Exchange is this: while we are gathered on Thanksgiving Day to remember our blessings and share our love for family and friends, we can begin to look forward to Christmas by sharing gifts; ornaments that we will hang on our Christmas trees. Everyone enjoys opening a present and anticipating what will be inside, and taking something home with them. This reminds me of Christmas, too. We look forward to the birth of the Christ child, anticipating the hope and the good news He brings to the world. And we can take something home, into our hearts, from that. Even if you celebrate Christmas in a secular way, this is a fun activity to do to anticipate the coming holiday and the spirit of giving and of the season.
Finally, I must share that two years ago I made a little adjustment to our Ornament Exchange. While my husband’s eldest daughter was anticipating the birth of her daughter (who was born on December 26!), it seemed that Thanksgiving Day would be an opportune time to hold a much-needed baby shower. Unbeknownst to the expectant mom, I asked everyone to bring shower gifts. This was a great way for my younger sister and sister-in-law to pass forward the car seats, swings, play yards, clothing, etc. that their children had outgrown, and for the rest of us to contribute something new.
So I sent my husband’s daughter an invitation with the usual reminder about the Ornament Exchange, and to everyone else, instructions for the baby shower. On Thanksgiving Day, we put some of the small items on the coffee table to continue the deception. After dinner, while her dad distracted her, some of the guests delivered larger items to our porch. With everyone in on the surprise, the anticipation and excitement grew as we waited for my husband to escort his daughter into the room.
When she sat down and realized that she was the guest of honor, man, was she surprised! What a wonderful time it was for all of us to be a part, especially for my family whose only connection to my husband’s daughter is through me. Now they could be part of the anticipation of a new member coming into our extended family. And my mother, sisters, and sister-in-law enjoyed sharing their personal experiences as mothers as they embraced the soon-to-be mom and made her feel part of the circle.
And the men in our family were good sports to be part of a baby shower. I figured that they were getting a chance to be part of something they probably would never get to experience. Anyway, I think they, too, enjoyed knowing that they were helping, and they had good advice, too.
This year our granddaughter, River, is almost two. Lively and full of personality, she will be able to bring her own ornament to share, and to choose one for herself. Watching this little baby, who, two years ago we only knew as “Pumpkin”, should be a lot of fun. I secretly hope she chooses one of my ornaments! Either way, knowing that she is part of a tradition that I started is simply a pleasure to me.