As this is published, I will be, like many Americans, recovering from Thanksgiving diner. But this year there will have been a difference – we were invited to dinner at the home of our son and his new bride. This made me start thinking about how holiday celebrations like these have changed through the years as older generations have left us and younger ones have filled in from below.
The Thanksgiving holiday (and the traditional dinner that comes with it) is as American as, well, pumpkin pie. The holiday was most ardently celebrated in the northeast until it worked its way throughout the nation in the first half if the previous century. Because my grandfather was a native of New England, Thanksgiving was always a major thing in my life.
Thankgiving, like most other major family celebrations, took place at the home of the older folks – my grandparents. On both sides of the family, grandparents’ homes were the gathering place where all of the generations came together. That seemed natural to me up into my teens – family events required a trip. As the song says, “Over the river and through the woods, to Grandmother’s house we go.”
But then we watched grandparents age out of hosting these celebrations and our parents took over. Thanksgivings no longer involved all of the aunts, uncles and cousins, but a smaller family that seemed to be more divided by geography. And in my own case, further divided by parents who had divorced. My father loved Thanksgiving like he loved no other holiday, and I treasure the memories of Thanksgiving at Dad’s. That was the one day of the year when he commanded the kitchen and saw to it that everything was done to his specifications.
My mother was more of a Christmas girl, but she enjoyed her Thanksgivings too. It was a sadness in my life that I could never spend the full day with both of them, so choices had to be made. By my early 20’s Thanksgiving at Mom’s was a small affair with just four of us – Mom, me and my newly married sister and her hubs.
When I got married I lived over a hundred miles away from either of my parents and the new Thanksgiving ritual involved going to my mother-in-law’s house. Early on, those were some big, big dinners. Beyond Marianne’s mother there her five kids, two of whom were married with little kids of their own. Then there was Marianne’s aunt and uncle. They were the ones with the really big family of nine kids, with more than a handful of spouses and grandchildren by then. Both families did Thanksgiving and Christmas together, and Thanksgiving was always at Marianne’s mother’s house (that was not nearly big enough for that crowd).
As Marianne’s mother and aunt got older and as families continued to expand with marriages and more grandchildren, the holiday shrunk to just Marianne’s family, that usually numbered around seventeen people in three generations. One of the regrets of our life is that we did not do a better job of switching up our family Thanksgivings by going back to my family’s on alternate years. But there was something in my mother-in-law that expected everyone to be at her table, and everyone somehow accommodated – including Marianne’s sister who would attend two Thanksgiving dinners in one day – early with husband’s family and later with her own.
Then Marianne’s Mom got old enough that things subdivided again and we started having Thanksgiving at our own house. Again, we were down to our little unit of five plus a couple of local in-laws and maybe others dropping in for dessert later. Our meal was a little different, but we settled into a routine that was more-or-less automatic for how everything came together. Although there remains some tension about whether the sweet potato recipe from her family or mine is better.
About five years ago our Thanksgiving-hosting son invited us to his place – he is probably the most gifted cook in the whole family and had the house where he lived that year to himself for the holiday. It was still more-or-less our regular dinner and we supplied most of the traditional sides with John adding a thing or two beyond the roast turkey. But this year it will be his dinner all the way, with a less traditional menu that will center around roasted pork. It will also be a larger affair with members of his new in-laws coming too.
I like to think that Marianne and I still have the stuff within us to host several more Thanksgivings, and do not expect that this latest generational shift in hosting duties is permanent. But just in case it is, I will do my best to slide into my new role as one of the elders who can be a gracious guest at someone else’s table.
COAL Update: The family of 1995 gets a family car from 1968. A good time was had by all.