Once a year on Thanksgiving Day, families all over America sit down together for dinner. When you think about it, that's pretty amazing. It's one of the few times nowadays people regularly gather for a family meal.
If we aren't careful, though, it's a day that can go by in a gluttonous blur of giblets gravy and pumpkin pie. To keep that from happening, some families make a conscious effort to savor the holiday through their rituals and traditions.
The ritual can be something as simple as going around the table and having people say what they're thankful for. Or as elaborate as working together in a soup kitchen Thanksgiving morning before returning home to enjoy the big meal.
Even if your family hasn't consciously created traditions beyond eating and watching football, you may still have some. Perhaps a particular dish brings back memories of childhood, even though no one really likes it much any other time of year. Maybe inviting one person who doesn't have anywhere else to go has become the family's way to teach the kids about compassion.
Jackie Coplin, 48, a Baltimore social worker, knows the importance of simply being with her mom, a cancer survivor. Her family always gathers together in her mother's tiny apartment 11 floors up in senior housing.
"We gotta go to Momma's," she says with a laugh. "We all squeeze in. We're all so thankful. We sit around, talk, stuff ourselves like pigs, sit back and talk."
"Just gathering the family together is a ritual in itself," agrees William Doherty, author of "The Intentional Family: Simple Rituals to Strengthen Family Ties" (Addison-Wesley, 1997). "Part of being a ritual is that elements are repeated."
For this one meal, at least, we turn off the TV, eat the same food year after year and all finish at the same time. But, says Doherty, "ritual enhancements deepen it a little bit."
By ritual enhancements he means some traditional activity that brings the family closer together. When local community advocate Constance Maddox, her mother, six siblings, their 16 children and the four grandchildren get together around the dinner table on Thanksgiving, each adult gives a blessing before they start on the two turkeys, ham, potato salad, sauerkraut, homemade biscuits, collard greens, sweet potato pies and three different cakes.
"After dinner," says Maddox, 46, "we just sit around playing games like Monopoly," which counts as a ritual as well -- one that includes the kids in the fun.
Likewise every Thanksgiving, 39-year-old Kay Conners' husband and two sons organize a football game for kids and dads to be played on the middle school field in their Rodgers Forge neighborhood. It's become their holiday tradition, as much a part of the day as the turkey and stuffing.
"The first year we sent out invitations," says Conners, "And a mob showed up. We had to divide it into two games."
Some families find that Thanksgiving is a good time to work on family history as part of the ritual of celebration. It is, after all, one of the few holidays that celebrates our national history, a fact that sometimes gets lost in the day's feasting.
For many years, Louise Fink, 60, a city school administrator, spent the holiday at the home of her sister-in-law, whose father had come here from a Nazi concentration camp. Each year he would stand up at dinner and make a Thanksgiving toast: "Thank you, America, for liberating me! L'chaim to America!"
"It was so much back to what Thanksgiving meant originally," says Fink.
Not all Thanksgiving rituals are as identifiable. The somnolent gathering in the living room after the lengthy dinner is a time for bringing out the photo album, reminiscing and telling family stories, many of which get repeated year after year. No one should be in a rush to get to the dishes or turn on the football game; such seemingly inconsequential gatherings play an important role in family life.
"What makes us who we are is our memories," says Saul Lindenbaum, an Owings Mills psychologist who works with families and children. "The same thing is probably true for a family; families live through their shared memories and ritual."
Lots of families
It would all be easier, though, if there were only one family involved. Denis Rende, a 37-year-old tennis pro, and his siblings were faced with a common problem when they got married and started families of their own. Thanksgiving is a brief holiday, centering on just one meal, which makes it difficult to spend time with more than one set of family members.
"Everybody gets pulled apart different ways on the day itself," Rende says, "so we decided to get together the day before for a big pie bake."