We American's may have failed to live up to Thomas Nast's 1869 vision of all people united by universal suffrage and a seat at the national table, but many of our family Thanksgiving gatherings are now nearly as diverse.
Note—This has been one of my most popular and regularly requested annual holiday posts. So here it is today, in plenty of time to share with your guests—or your hosts.
This list of rules is particularly apt for those of us who do not live in House Beautiful, Snapchat posts, or Martha Stewart fantasies. It’s for those of us with cramped space, short time, and real families of blood, choice, accident, or convenience that don’t resembles that Norman Rockwell cover or behave at all times with perfect reverent decorum. In other words, most of the folks I know.
It turns out that this illustration, swiped from a children's book, was actually created by Theresa Murfin! Gotta be some kind of relative!. Hello, cousin and feel free to stop by for the feast. We'll make room.
1. If you spend the day in a homeless shelter, soup kitchen, jail, hospital, nursing home, or even on the street blatantly and illegally feeding the hungry, read no more. Your sins have been erased and forgotten and you win a gold star in the middle of your forehead.
Mozel tov if you spend Thanksgiving like this.
2. Sleep in a little. No matter how much there is to do, you will need your rest. Strong coffee with at least the pre-show for the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade is OK.
3. It’s alright to come early and spend the day—AS LONG AS THOSE NOT ACTUALLY COOKING OR HELPING BY REQUEST STAY THE HELL OUT OF THE KITCHEN.
4. If you are coming, bring something, anything to add to the feast and festivities unless you are explicitly warned against if by the occasional fussy perfect Hosts and Hostesses. It does not have to be homemade, expensive, or complicated. Just not poisonous.
5. If you are not cooking, help with the set up. Not every home has a state dining room, plenty of matching chairs, and infinite table leaves. Be prepared to move furniture aside, scour the house for any chair that will not collapse, including the folding chairs rusting in the garage. Try to make sure there are plates, bowls, glasses, and flatware at every seat. They do not have to match. In a pinch Ronald McDonald plates will suffice. Be prepared to ferry food from the kitchen as directed.
The place settings and chairs don't have to match.
6. Try to seat the children at the table. If this is not possible, do not ask teenagers to sit at the kids’ table. They will know you just want them to baby sit and hate you so much that you may later not want to be alone with them near the plug in your nursing home.
7. Speaking of children, if any are present at least one will smash an heirloom platter, spill a two litter bottle of Coke on the kitchen floor and everyone’s feet will be sticky the rest of the day, or pour gravy on the cat. Smile sweetly. This will become a beloved family story, and will embarrass the miscreant for decades to come.
Many of us gather with families of choice, not of blood like these urban hipsters and their friends. The same rules apply.
8. It is alright for some folks to watch some football when dinner is not on the table or family social time is not in force as long as men don’t hog the couches and beer and women are not made galley slaves and serving wenches.
9. When dinner is finally ready, firmly demand that all electronics be put away. This will cause shrieks and wails of protest, some of it from actual teenagers, the rest from relatives who realize you do not want them posting the meal live on Snapchat. There will be sulking. Almost everyone will get over it. Then tell some of the men that means turning off the football game as well.
10. Saying grace is fine. If you are a host, take a look around your table and if you are not completely sure that everyone there shares your exact and passionate religious convictions, try to make the prayer as inclusive as possible. Don’t ask for salvation of lost souls. No adding political diatribes in the guise of prayer—right or left. If you are a guest and hear a prayer that does not conform to your preferences unless a thumb has been stuck directly in your eye, smile and ignore it. Chances are that no matter how doltish the person praying meant well.
11. This is not the occasion to go to war over food choices. Let what you won’t/can’t eat pass by. Carnivores do not ridicule the vegetarians—and hosts make sure they have something to eat. Vegetarians, vegans, and Ethical eaters spare everyone your diatribes. You knew what you were in for when you agreed to come.
12. There almost surely will be at least one dramatic, cathartic moment at the table when old resentments are laid bare and skeletons come tumbling out of the closet. A few tears, even a little screaming and a dramatic stomping away from the table clear the air like a thunderstorm on the prairie. Afterwards if there is love and a dollop of understanding, the expectant tension broken, things feel better. Pass the pies.
Post-Thanksgiving dish stacking at the Murfin mansion--third load
13. After dinner the COOKS ARE EXEMPT FROM CLEAN-UP AND DISH WASHING!!!! There are no guests at Thanksgiving. Everyone is literal, figurative, or honorary family. Roll up your sleeves and pitch in. With a group effort, and plenty of take home containers for leftovers, it doesn’t take long.
14. Don’t everybody scatter the second the pie is put away. Deal the cards on the cleared table, play charades or parlor games. If there is a piano or guitar, start the singing. Share scrapbooks. Break out your best lies.
15. After a while it is alright to surrender to lethargy, sprawl listlessly on sofas and easy chairs, go gape mouthed and stupid. Even snore a little. There must be some sappy old movie on to pretend to watch.
16. And the most important rule of all—DON’T EVEN THINK ABOUT GOING SHOPPING! If you do, I will hunt you down and hurt you.
Thanksgiving Prayers should be about gratitude and love, not preaching, proselytizing, politics, or finger pointing. Swallow hard. You can manage it....
A few years ago I found myself asked to say grace at a typical extended family Thanksgiving. Around the table were Catholics ardent and lapsed, liberal Protestants, Jews (mostly secular), a practicing Buddhist, and unchurched secularists. And I, of course, was a Unitarian Universalist with Humanist leanings. To be inclusive, to whom should I address a prayer? What deity, if any, should I invoke? Should I lead with a Chinese menu of options—pick a god from column A and a spirit from column B?
This is what I came up with. You may find it useful—or not. Feel free to use it if it fits. Or adapt it to your needs and circumstances. No pressure.
A Thanksgiving Prayer for Those Who Don’t Pray
Thanks for the hands.
All of them.
That dug and scratched,
reaped and loaded,
milled and butchered,
baked and cooked,
served and scrubbed.
the blistered hands.
The hands that
hewed and smelted,
sawed and hammered,
wove and sewed,
put together and took apart.
the grimy hands.
The hands that
wrote and painted,
plucked and keyed
carved and created.
the nimble hands.
The hands that
caressed and fondled,
stroked and petted,
held and are held,
grasped and gave,
played and prayed.
the forgiving hands.
And today bless even the hands that
shoved and scourged,
slapped and smote,
bound and chained us.
the heavy hands.
Today they cannot still our hands
from their pleasure and their duty.
The void of anger they create,
our hands fill with love.
the reaching hands.