Peeling the Onion: Thanksgiving

For the first time in as long as I can remember, Thanksgiving will not be at my house.  The decision for the change was not deliberate; it was just something that happened.  Since I am not madly shopping and cooking, there is time to think about change and think about the focus on tradition that most families feel at Thanksgiving.  How do we create traditions for our children? What happens when creating tradition means lots of changes from everyday routine? Is there more to tradition at Thanksgiving than a turkey or a pilgrim hat? 

Creating Tradition


Traditions are tied to repeated, meaningful experiences.  Growing up in my family, tradition included music, family and food…in that order.  For many current families, music is left out of that equation.  So in my work I try to give the children and their parents a taste of how making music can bring everyone closer together and provide a common, meaningful activity.  Usually I need to point out to parents how engaged their children are when singing familiar songs and encourage them to recreate this moment of engagement themselves with their family. This can be very important for the child with special needs who might relate best to siblings or extended family through a familiar song.  The act of singing together is more important than the actual song, but I like to adapt old-fashioned melodies with functional language about love and belonging or gratitude and sharing.  A meter in three encourages swaying or rocking together. I also like to use a minor melody for some or all of the song to create a sense that something different or important is about to happen. You can find one of these that I wrote for Thanksgiving at

Coping with Change

When I host Thanksgiving at my house, the first thing that happens in the morning is that all the furniture is moved around to accommodate multiple tables and chairs. My dog hates it, since he loves routine and knowing the couch is always in the same place.  I suspect many children also experience confusion and anxiety as we grownups go crazy creating tradition.  The songs that I choose about Thanksgiving recognize these opposite feelings and create a sense of anticipation and maybe frenzy through crescendo or accelerando. We begin to sing or clap or dance slowly, but then get faster and faster and more out of control with each measure. A lot of traditional songs also use this technique. This is always followed by a return to calm with a steady tempo, repetitive melody and predictable structure.  As the children sing these songs they are able to experience changes in energy and emotion.  They learn that they can control their response, if they can’t control the situation. They learn to cope.


Families rely on give and take.  We might think that young children are always on the ‘take’ side, but they also learn and grow through ‘giving’.  To create a sense of belonging within the family, the child needs to both give and take.  Thanksgiving is a great time to sing about giving in terms of things children can do to contribute to the family.  Small chores with big meaning are one way to do this. The parents in my groups are always amazed that even the one-year olds totter to the toy box to clean up their toys when I whistle the familiar clean up song.  The kids then ‘struggle’ to push the box to the side of the room so the instrument play and dancing can start. The push becomes a marker of the child’s independent belonging within the group.  Thanksgiving music can sing about setting the table, or passing the bowl or making cookies.  It is also a great time to introduce songs about manners.  Saying ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ shows that the child recognizes the other person and wants to connect to them.  Setting these words to music will help the child to remember and use them.  And this will surely contribute to making the holiday a wonderful experience for all.

What songs do you sing with your children for the holidays? Do you sing the same songs with your own family?  Is music part of the traditions of your family?  Or for the family of your children?  We would love to hear about music, family and tradition. Take a moment after the turkey to post some thoughts.

With many thanks for all you do for young children,


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