On Thanksgiving with a Small Family


Marc Chagall – The Table Piled With Food

Save for a lovely stepbrother she received in middle school, my mother is an only child. I’ve long heard stories of how she grew up longing for a big family: a gaggle of siblings, a full house, babies to hold, noise. 

These wishes would come up most often around the holidays; it’s not hard to guess why.

Still, she married a man with one sibling and a family living across the country. There are four of us in my immediate family: two parents, two daughters. I love our quartet and I love leftovers but, when it comes to a Thanksgiving feast, a whole turkey is perhaps too much. 

And so, the holiday has often involved a decision. Do we stay in, the four of us and, more recently, a couple of boyfriends, cuddled up with a meal that’s more one-pan manageable? Do we take loved ones up on offers to join in on their celebrations? We’ve done both before; both have been nice.

Though grocery store lines and Diane Keaton movies may suggest otherwise, the only true requirement of Thanksgiving is to give thanks. You know that daily gratitude practice you’ve been working on? It’s more or less a requirement. 

Though grocery store lines and Diane Keaton movies may suggest otherwise, the only true requirement of Thanksgiving is to give thanks. You know that daily gratitude practice you’ve been working on? It’s more or less a requirement. 

Which isn’t to say the food and company can’t be delightful; these aspects factor in perfectly. Living and feasting on your gratitude with people you love is a sweet way to think of Thanksgiving. One of the joys of a small family is an easy basis for curation. 

My holiday season memories have always involved a rotating cast of characters. There’s never been a “real Thanksgiving” and a “Friendsgiving;” more so a real-Thanksgiving-spent-with-friends. “Friends can be family” is a lesson I’m glad I learned early. 

One year, we had friends over and they brought a tofurkey. Another year, we headed to the same friends’ neighborhood for a progressive dinner party. We ate stuffed olive leaves and went on a walk after dinner.

There were years where we made crafts out of gumdrops with my grandmother and her best friend, Sheila. When my grandmother died and Sheila moved away, another best friend (sweetly, the mother of my mother’s oldest friend), invited us in. There we dined and partook in another’s family traditions—a gorgeous table setting, canapés, giggles. The next year we tried something else, just the four of us. We stopped at their house later in the evening to say hi and hug.

Having no tradition can be a tradition, too.

In 2017, I spent Thanksgiving in northern Norway. My sister was in Germany and my parents were celebrating the holiday as a party of two. On my front, minimal hours of sunlight gave way for plenty of cozy in-home cooking time, but my friends and I had limited utensils: a tiny stove, a single pot, a single pan. Furthermore, Libbey’s canned pumpkin was at least $6 American dollars a pop.

So we rolled with it. We made chicken breasts (turkey) with lingonberries (cranberries). The stuffing was a loaf of good bread and mashed potatoes were mashed potatoes (5 kg of them).

We ate and it was fun; the next year I was home and our celebration was officially a one-off. But the best part of it was that it was so singular; when could such a magnificent and specific situation happen again?

Some people don’t have big families to spend the holidays with, by chance or by choice or by anything in between. Some people do, and I’m sure that’s very fun, too.

What matters is that you eat something cozy (the holiday turkey and stuffing panini at Starbucks is great in a pinch) and tell your loved ones—however many there are, related or not—that you’re thankful for them. Watch The Family Stone if you want to do that to yourself, watch First Wives Club if you don’t

One tradition we do have: My family will undoubtedly try to choose a movie at the end of the night this year. With only four opinions in the mix, it shouldn’t be that hard.

It can be Diane Keaton, but it doesn’t have to be. That’s part of the fun.

And we can always, always, pick something new next year.

BY Sophie Vilensky - November 22, 2019

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November 22, 2019 4:20 pm

yes to be thankful that is the secret ingredient

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