I remember our first Thanksgiving as a married couple when Merry and I were invited to spend the day with some friends from our church. We enjoyed a great meal, but we had hardly finished eating when someone said, “The game is starting!” and all the men jumped up and fled to the living room, leaving behind a group of unhappy wives.

After that experience we decided we would not allow football to govern the way we celebrated Thanksgiving. We realized it’s easy to let Thanksgiving become just another day, rather than a celebration of family and, most important, a time to thank God for what He has done in our lives.

Of course, football is just one possible threat to this holiday. In their never-ending effort to edge out the competition, a growing number of America’s retailers have been opening on Thanksgiving Day. It wasn’t enough to open at midnight on Black Friday—now ​many stores are opening their doors on Thanksgiving afternoon and a few are even open in the morning.

If you’re feeling outraged, you may be in the minority. As Rick Newman of The Daily Ticker wrote in 2013:

Sorry, but shopping comes first in America. Anybody who wants to preserve the sanctity of the holidays is free to stay at home, huddle with family, or even step off the grid. You could start, if you desire, by clicking out of this article. The rest of us want to shop. We’ve sent that message to Big Retail year after year, and they’ve responded by offering us the incredible low prices we want, exactly when we want them: always. The turkey and mashed potatoes can wait.

Newman was writing humorously, but there’s a hint of sadness in his words as well. He’s talking about misplaced priorities; we’re missing something when we allow a holiday like Thanksgiving to slip away and become just another shopping day.

I don’t know how to save Thanksgiving in our culture, but I do know we have the power to save it in our own families. If you want to keep Thanksgiving from becoming a meaningless holiday, it will require some team effort with your spouse. Begin by answering these questions together:

  • Are we happy with the way we celebrate Thanksgiving?
  • What can we do to help people enjoy each other more this year?
  • What can we do to focus more on God this year?

Here are some ideas:

1. Declare a digital holiday.

I don’t think I can overstate how much digital technology—especially the smartphone—has changed the way we relate to one another over the last decade. Most of us could tell stories of family gatherings where some individuals spent most of the time looking at their cell phones rather than engaging in conversation.

If this has become a problem in your family, you might start by planting some seeds ahead of time about the importance of putting some boundaries on cell phone use at Thanksgiving. And on the big day you’ll need to be a bit bold. Think of ways to address the issue without lecturing or singling out specific individuals, and without being self-righteous or preachy. It may be as simple as passing around a basket at the start of Thanksgiving dinner while declaring, “It’s time for everyone to surrender their cell phones!” Do the same during special family activities.

2. Don’t make football your highest priority.

I love watching football as much as anyone, and I’m not recommending a football boycott. But consider that there are dozens of games on television each week, but only one opportunity for your family to gather. Ask yourself what’s most important.

At the very least, plan the meal and other family activities so they won’t be crowded by football. Consider recording the game and watching it later.

3. Start the day by spending some time with God.

Read through Psalms that talk about giving thanks to God: Psalm 50:14; 69:30; 95:2; 100:4; 147:7. And then focus on Psalm 9:1, which tells us, “I will give thanks to the Lord with my whole heart; I will recount all of your wonderful deeds.” Write down some of the ways that God has worked in your life and your family. And save your list for later.

4. Let the people you love know that you’re grateful for them.

There are few things more encouraging than hearing someone say, “I’m so glad that God has put you in my life.” Who needs to hear that today? Your spouse? Your children? Your parents?

5. Plan some fun Thanksgiving activities.

Give your family something better to do than watch football. Holidays are a wonderful time to play games or do crafts together. This is especially fun for the kids, who love playing games with their grandparents or with older relatives.

6. Make the dinner memorable for more than the food.

This is a good time for you to share your list of things God has done in your life. Read a couple Scriptures about giving thanks, and then ask those at the table, “What is one thing new in your life that you are thankful for?” If appropriate, talk about something difficult that occurred during the last year, and express your thanks for that experience. Thanking God is an expression of trust in Him—and that’s good for any family.

This is also a good opportunity to ask older members of the family to tell stories about family history. Ask your parents and grandparents questions like:

  • How did you celebrate Thanksgiving when you were a child? What did your parents make for the Thanksgiving meal?
  • How did you meet and fall in love?
  • How did you celebrate your first Thanksgiving together?

Or do a Google search for “Thanksgiving conversation starters.” You’ll find a ton of great ideas to make your dinner discussion meaningful and learn more about each other.

7. Save shopping for another day.

You can shop almost any other day of the year. Why do it on one of the few occasions when you gather family and friends for a special celebration? Go the next day—or anytime during the next month. Stores will continue offering great sales right up to Christmas.

Saving Thanksgiving in your family will require commitment, teamwork, and discipline.  But it’s worth it.

Copyright © 2013 by FamilyLife. All rights reserved.