Substance: A Tale of Two Thanksgivings

Feature photo by Dion Hinchcliffe

For the past half decade, my husband and I have been dividing up our Thanksgiving Day into two parts: half with his family, half with mine.  Initially we thought this would make both sides happy with the added bonus of both offerings of food.  More recently, we’ve been dreading the hassle of what should be a pleasant holiday on which we celebrate what we’re thankful for with incredibly sinful foods: my mom’s sweet potato bake or my aunt’s Napoleon cake.

This year I’m pregnant.  Such a condition makes the prospect of having first dibs on seconds (and thirds) so much more appealing.  Unfortunately, having to suffer through the formalities of annual feigned interest from our annual family interest in our lives is so unappealing, I struggle to keep my appetite.  You see, at one side we encounter people we generally see once or twice a year, more often on years in which there are funerals and weddings.  At the other side are people we see more frequently and who have a presence in our lives outside of holidays.

It was in thinking about the concept of the Thanksgiving meal that I realized our relationships with the people we dine with is reflected in how we dine with them…or at least it is in the case of our families. The side that makes a big deal of our appearance at holidays, even though we don’t have as much of a relationship with them, is the side that is uber insistent on spending holidays together. It is at this side, nonetheless, where dinner is served buffet style with each diner scattering to a different corner of the house. The side that is more understanding of an absence or other commitment sits down together, even if at more than one table, complete with a toast from our host.

I realize it’s not always feasible to serve food in that Norman Rockwell family style. But isn’t part of the fun of Thanksgiving, or even Christmas for that matter, hearing a grandparent recall a story about how she spent a holiday on a ship while emigrating? Or about the first time your parent was allowed to share in the Mogen David at the Christmas table? Or recounting, yet again, that time your cousin was asked to say a prayer before a meal, and she responded, “Amen?” It just doesn’t seem like much to be thankful for when you’re forced to go through the annual blind date conversation with whomever you get stuck next to on the sofa because that was the only place left to sit while the football game is blaring.

While numerous studies and countless articles emphasize the importance of eating together on a daily basis, I find it curious that no one has studied the effect of eating together as a family during the holidays. A Time magazine article from 2006 explains that “meals together send the message that citizenship in a family entails certain standards beyond individual whims. This is where a family builds its identity and culture.” This is an almost universally accepted truth about the nuclear family, and it would seem only logical that when looking at the wider scope of one’s place in an extended family, it would be true for holiday meals as well.

The way it looks right now, we are on our way to spending yet another Thanksgiving where our roles are both unfortunately and fortunately obvious: at one side, we’re just another couple of warm bodies who share the same last name; at the other, we’re part of the conversation and already adding stories of our own to the family folklore.