Sunday, November 20, 2011

Thanksgiving Traditions

My Best Friend Meri and I at our school's Thanksgiving Feast.
Around 1988

Growing up, Thanksgiving was always my favorite holiday.  Traditions on my mom’s side of the family go way back.  My grandmother cooked pies for days and then woke up early to begin roasting the turkey and preparing the sides that cars full of cousins, aunts, uncles, and grandparents would joyfully devour that evening.  My mother and her four siblings, and her parents would get dressed up in full head to toe costume as Plymouth Pilgrims and Wampanoag Indians.  

When I came along, the tradition of dressing up transferred to the feast days we had at school.  I adorned the blue dress/apron left over from my Alice in Wonderland costume and a white paper plate bonnet tied with yarn around my chin.  We’d spend the day writing poems about what we were grateful for that year and make handprint and pine cone turkeys. Gleefully I awaited the rarity of both my mom and dad as guests for the school’s Thanksgiving lunch. The cafeteria would serve thinly sliced turkey loaf drenched in “gravy”,  rehydrated mashed potatoes, corn on the cob, cranberry jelly, and a square of crust-less pumpkin pie topped with a cloud of Cool Whip. It was hands down the best meal of the cafeteria year. To have so many wonderful favorites all on the same plate was a dream come true. And it only got better the next day.

Thursday morning I’d wake up early, twirling around the living room in my Sunday best. I anticipated the moment Thanksgiving mass would be over and we'd return so I could plant myself in front of the television to watch the live showing of the Macy’s day parade.  The commercials were awesome and Publix did their best to top themselves every year.  Last Train Home aired when I was I was about six and to this day still makes my eyes misty. While mom cooked, I’d marvel at the floats, giant balloons, and dance teams, wishing I could be there wrapped in a warm coat, ice skating at Rockefeller center, the snow gently forming a soft veil over my blond ponytail. “Wow! Mommy, you’ve got to see this!!!”

“Just a minute,” Mom would be making her assigned dishes of corn, mashed potatoes, and rolls. The smells of butter would have me salivating in anticipation for the afternoon meal at my grandmother’s house.  I’d have just enough time to irritate my parents with three rounds of “Over the river and through the woods to Grandmother’s house we go…” before we arrived just three miles away. My cousins and I would rush off to play as car after car arrived with family bringing their assigned dish.  Grandma always made the turkey, Brussels sprouts & cauliflower with cheese sauce, Aunt Carol made the turnips and sweet potatoes, Aunt Linda baked the best apple and pumpkin pies with enough for each family to take a pumpkin pie home. 

Thanksgiving was one of the few holidays in my family that people didn’t seem stressed out from all the shopping and light hanging.  It was a time to rejoice over the blessings that year had brought, to embrace the family and friends around us, and be grateful to God for all he had given us.  I was probably the only kid I knew that valued Thanksgiving as much as Christmas. Sure Christmas was great, but the older I got the more precious Thanksgiving became. It was a glorious day and the most important day of the year for me.

When my husband and I married we suddenly had two households to visit and only one Thanksgiving to do so.  I guess that is just one of the challenges that come with the blessing of having both families close by-how do we divide our time for the Holidays?  Christmas was always easier because Christmas Eve and Christmas Day would usually depend on when my sister-in-law, Tasha, drove in from up North with her family.  In the beginning, we did Christmas Day at both houses, but the last couple of years we’d do either Christmas Eve with Mike’s family or mine and then Christmas Day with the other. 

My husband comes from Russian ancestry, so Easter is an extremely important holiday in his family and especially for my mother-in-law, Mama-V. Easter was like Mike’s Thanksgiving is to me -his most favorite holiday.  So for the last consecutive four years of our marriage, we made it a priority to spend Easter day with my husband’s family.

Managing Thanksgiving after marriage, however, was always a bit trickier. The first year Mike and I got married we did two Thanksgiving events on that day, one with my mom’s family, one with his. The second-year Jenna was still small so we were only able to pop in at my Aunt Linda’s house for a hello and then ate dinner at his parent’s house. The third-year Mike’s parents were in Missouri with his sister on Thanksgiving Day so we ate at my Aunt Carol’s House and then shared a Thanksgiving meal with Mike’s parents on another day at their house. 

This year, well….this year things changed.  Originally Mike and I had wanted to host the Thanksgiving meal at our house.  With Naomi’s dietary needs, I would have to make our own gluten/dairy/soy free turkey, gravy, dressing, potatoes, and pumpkin pie anyway. But when we brought up the idea, people thought our 1,200 square foot house was too small to accommodate everyone. Instead, we reluctantly resolved ourselves to do two meals again (one with each family) in one day. 

A few days later the time change had caused nap chaos for the girls and Jenna took on a new personality of total crankiness. Loss mitigation wasn’t going well with the mortgage company, the Toyota Camry still hadn’t sold, the bills were overflowing, and Mike got a new student at the last second resulting in more paperwork. Conferences, home visits, parent night, faculty meetings- Mike’s work got more and more stressful.  One night when Jenna was still wide awake at 9 p.m. for the third night in a row, Mike leaned over and grimaced at me, “I’m really hating the idea of running everywhere for Thanksgiving. And I’m really starting to hate the holidays altogether.”  We knew we had to change things or we’d both go insane. 

Then I got an email from Focus on the Family with an article talking about this very same thing titled: The Holidays Times Two. 
These points really hit home for Mike and I:
1)       “You can please some of the people some of the time, but you can't please all of the people all of the time" is never truer than when it comes to where you are going to spend the holidays.
2)       Both spouses' families can sometimes place unrealistic expectations on couples and put them in awkward situations……You're caught in the middle, feeling guilty that you can't be in two places at the same time.
3)      A good place to begin is to discuss which holidays are important to each of you and why. Perhaps one of your families makes a big deal of Thanksgiving but Christmas is low-key. You may want to celebrate Thanksgiving with them and visit the other family for Christmas.
4)      You can't please everyone, so together decide what's best for the two of you.
5)      Review your options annually, and be willing to adjust your holiday plans to match your new circumstances. Making a change can be good, especially when it brings your life into balance; now may be a good time to introduce one.

It was exactly 12 days before Thanksgiving.  We talked about it, laid out the pros and cons, and then worked out a compromise.  Because we had spent Easter this year with his family, Mike and I would do Thanksgiving dinner with my family.  We’d go to church with his family Thanksgiving morning and then have his family over for a nice dinner the weekend following so we could see them too.  Mike called his parents the next day and tried to explain, but….unfortunately, things didn’t go as well as hoped. 

I’m learning in my married life that no matter how good our intentions are people will still get hurt.  All we can do is our try our best to be fair and attempt to express that we meant no harm. Like the Focus on the Family article said, we can’t make everyone happy. As husband and wife, Mike and I are a team (no matter what other people may think) and ultimately it is our joint decision what is best for our family of four.
As the article also pointed out, circumstances can change from year to year. So we will review our Thanksgiving commitments next year and not make any concrete plans until then. With the mortgage company being the evil breed they are, our circumstances will most likely be very different by then. 

Mike told me that he’d be perfectly happy staying home, just the four of us for all the holidays ever after. “After all this drama, I’d be happy to live in the middle of nowhere someplace in North Carolina and just do Thanksgiving with you and the girls.” I laughed and agreed that didn’t sound too terrible to me. After all, we had wanted to stay home in the first place. Perhaps next year we will have Thanksgiving at our house, and then anyone who wants to come can join us.

Until next year, we focus instead on the coming days ahead.  I look forward to making handprint turkeys with Jenna, paper plate pilgrim bonnets, and the smell of my own little gluten free turkey cooking in the oven.   Mike, Jenna, Naomi and I certainly have been blessed in so many ways and have a great deal to be Thankful for this year. But most especially, I look forward to starting new Thanksgiving traditions with Mike and my girls. Now if only I could track down my mom’s old Wampanoag Indian headdress. J

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