Thanksgiving has always been one of my favorite holidays. Even as a child, I remember the day as a big-hearted gathering of family and friends. My childless aunts and uncles always come to our house for this celebratory occasion.
One year, just before we were to be seated for dinner, my mother looked outside and saw an elderly neighbor walking down the street. It was spitting snow and he was wearing a worn overcoat. My mother told my dad to go outside and ask our neighbor to join us at the table.
Dad hung the fellow’s coat in the closet, and we all sat down to a traditional Thanksgiving meal. Afterwards, our guest joined Dad in the living room for a while. When it was time for him to leave, my mom switched our guest’s worn overcoat for my dad’s new one ... something my dad would tease my mom about for years to come.
I looked forward to spending Thanksgiving every year in the company of family members. When I got married, my husband accepted a grant at The Smithsonian, and distance kept us apart from our families in West Virginia.
Alone in D.C., I decided to start a new holiday tradition. Long before the term Friendsgiving was ever used, I invited others who were also far from home to a potluck feast. Naturally, we had turkey and all of the fixings. But with folks from different countries and cultural backgrounds, our potluck gathering took on an international flair.
Once back home in West Virginia, we tried to maintain family traditions until people moved away or established their own holiday customs. My friend, a bachelor and Presbyterian minister, suggested we host international students from one of the local colleges, since the dormitories and dining halls closed during the holidays.
Thus, started a new tradition with guests from around the world. Word got out that our Thanksgiving dinner was not to be missed and there were times when we had more than 40 guests. Students who had graduated and gone on to graduate school in other parts of the country flew back to West Virginia to celebrate with us.
Those Thanksgiving celebrations are my most memorable. Since there were guests of ethnic and religious diversity, we did not present a prayer before the meal. Each person offered a brief statement about something for which they were thankful. Some from war-torn countries would say they were thankful not to live in fear anymore. By the end of the round, everyone was feeling very grateful.
Eventually, the college made other arrangements for international students. My friend died and our tradition ended. My husband and I have since been invited to participate in Thanksgiving/Friendsgiving events that have now become our holiday tradition.
This year, the pandemic will have all of us rethinking the holidays. Thanksgiving will probably be a smaller, more intimate gathering for most. It is important to prepare classic signature dishes that spark memories of past Thanksgivings, but this may be a good year to include some new and creative dishes to add variety and elevate the occasion, perhaps giving rise to new traditions.
Embrace changes and experience something new with the people you love. Here are a few ideas for a different-but-wonderful Thanksgiving feast.