A feast among friends

For some Marylanders, the annual holiday is much more than a family occasion.


The year was 1969. The group was young, idealistic - a mix of ex-VISTA and Peace Corps volunteers and social-work students - and far from home. They decided to declare their independence from family and expensive holiday travel, and spend Thanksgiving together in their new hometown.

Thirty-six years, scores of turkeys and a few personnel changes later, the group still spends Thanksgiving together at the Reservoir Hill home of Chickie Grayson, president of Enterprise Homes. Now the annual Big Chill-like celebration starts with a spaghetti dinner on the Tuesday before Thanksgiving and doesn't end until folks straggle home on Sunday.

High fuel prices, airline industry woes and strong demand have hiked the price of holiday travel this year. For some people, that will mean staying put on Thanksgiving and celebrating with local friends and co-workers who also find themselves without a place to go.

But watch out. You might have so much fun that you start a new tradition.

Unlike most of the holidays that take place this time of year, Thanksgiving has become a neutral celebration that easily melds friends of different faiths and culture.

Lucy Long, an assistant professor of folklore and popular culture at Bowling Green State University in Ohio, said Thanksgiving with friends may have more in common with early Thanksgivings than dinner with family alone. The original concept of Thanksgiving was that it was community, she said.

Several people who celebrate Thanksgiving with friends said it becomes a particularly comfortable way to spend what can otherwise be an emotionally loaded occasion.

"We all accept each other for what we are," said Tamara Nelson of Baltimore, who spends Thanksgiving with her husband, two other couples and their children. "I can't remember anybody ever really getting in a huge, blowout fight." "I'm a very loud person and I can yell if I want to, but with my friends, it's easier for me to let things go and not to have a grudge. In families, sometimes I see more strife."

Long said the rapid changes and mobility in American society in the past few decades have made some people feel disconnected from family. "A lot of people do feel like their friends are closer than family," she said. "They might share some of their real interests and values with friends rather than family."

Then there's the trouble and expense of making a long trip over a short holiday period. After a holiday season when their travels to see relatives along the East Coast were particularly harrowing, Anna Leonhardt of Ellicott City and her friend Jill Walther of Gaithersburg stayed home the next year with their small families - and spent the day with each other.

Twelve years later, they're still trading off Thanksgiving duties, and their children, now teenagers, expect to spend the day together.

"It was kind of like, not a thing you decide," said Leonhardt, 49, who manages a pharmaceutical association. "It was just a thing that happened. ... If I had a holiday without them, it would seem like something's missing at this point."

For some Thanksgiving hosts, friends fill in the painful gaps left by children who have grown and gone or loved ones who have died. "We laugh together and sometimes even blink back a tear over bygone memories," said Betty Zajac, 67, of Cub Hill, of her now-small family's gathering with friends.

Julia Dimmick of Jarrettsville started her Thanksgiving tradition 33 years ago, cooking for her husband and a group of his Army buddies and fraternity brothers. Wives, girlfriends and children came along, and now the group is about 12 strong, with friends coming from as far away as Maine and staying from Wednesday to Saturday.

Many things about the celebration have endured. "We have to have turkey and stuffing, and I have to make my coleslaw," said Dimmick, 54. "One year, I put sauerkraut on the table and everybody looked at me like I was nuts."

Lynell Tobler of Owings Mills thinks she must have hinted broadly to be invited to the home of Robert and Jan Levine, owners of the local Fire & Ice chain of jewelry stores and friends of her husband, Jesse Turner. Now they go to the Levines' North Baltimore home almost every year, and for some other holidays as well.

Tobler, 49, was nervous the first time she was invited several years ago. But jitters disappeared with the first glass of champagne, and she quickly found herself acting as sous chef to Robert Levine in the couple's large kitchen.

"He proposes a toast every year in lieu of grace that is very moving and sentimental and has us all crying," Tobler said. "That really showed me that I was where I wanted to be on Thanksgiving."

Levine, who typically hosts 10 to 12 friends and relatives, said he began to invite friends because there wasnt enough family close by to have a "hearty" Thanksgiving. After moving to Baltimore in 1985, the couple tried going out to restaurants a few times, but it wasn't the same.

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