I know this is a fractious, nausea-inducing time in our nation, and many of us are not looking forward to our annual tribute to over-consumption. Especially if we’re in warring political camps within our family groups, Thanksgiving has shifted this year from being a slightly awkward encounter with some of our least-favorite relatives to an exercise in bomb-dodging.
But historical and emotional baggage notwithstanding, I believe wholeheartedly in the worthiness of an annual holiday where gratitude is the central theme. As a nation, we’re divided in so many ways, including the ethnic and religious rituals we celebrate other times of year. Thanksgiving is one of the very few holidays we ALL celebrate and it includes plenty of license for flexibility (I once met an Indian woman in line at my local bank and made chit chat about the holiday: she had begun celebrating Thanksgiving since emigrating to the US but doesn’t eat meat as a Hindu, so her family includes a blessing for the absent turkey as part of their annual tradition.)
So, in the interest of limiting casualties for Thanksgiving 2016, I’m going to offer a few suggestions about ground rules to lay down before the feast. Now, there are many ways to do this, but your best chance of success is to send an email or text to everyone who’s coming to your house a day or two BEFORE the holiday. As the host/hostess, it is perfectly within your rights to set the tone and demand that people come prepared to be gracious. One more thing: I’m a firm believer in the no-cellphones-at-the-table rule. Pretend you’re at the movies: silence them all, no exceptions expect for life-and-death matters, and place them in a box or basket out of the dining room to hinder temptation.
Decide How to Limit Political Discourse or Keep it Polite
According to one poll, 33 % of Trump supporters have some Hillary fans in their immediate family, and about 30% of Hillary supporters say there will be some Trump fans at their table. So, there could be conversational sparks, and you may want to limit the politics talk — or avoid it all together. This has to be done on a very personal, family-by-family basis but I think there are several good ways to go here, depending on your tribe’s proclivities. You can simply declare that all talk of politics is off limits for the day. Remind people when they arrive, and you may even create some amusing “No Politics” signs: this one is for sale on Etsy.
But there are other options: some families love having an energetic, even argumentative talk about politics and policies, but they still don’t want it to dominate the day. So set some limits: if your family has a settled tradition of taking a long walk together before or after the meal, declare that the walk is the only time when political talk is permitted. If you are going to allow any amount of election talk, then create some parameters and expectations: people need to quietly listen when another person is talking, people need to take turns expressing their views, and you may want to invoke a time-out ritual (the host or designated debate coach could always wear a whistle: I read where one pro-Hillary guy with pro-Trump parents was taking an air horn to keep Thanksgiving arguments from turning into a contact sport.)
Keep the Focus on Gratitude
Gratitude is, after all, the whole point. And the best way to keep family and friends focused on that is to create rituals for expressing personal gratitude that will keep people occupied. My family always makes a Thankfulness Tree, and it’s fun to sit together and write the things we’re thankful for on paper leaves that I cut out ahead of time. Here’s a blog post I wrote a few years ago, with lots of ways of creating a Thankfulness Tree. Some people go around the table during the meal taking turns saying things for which they are grateful (although this can also turn political): you can even do this exercise alphabetically, so the first person finds something starting with A for which she/he is grateful, and so forth. (And of course there are many more examples in my book, The Book of New Family Traditions.)
One way to keep things on the gratitude track is to literally have a script for the meal. For the first Thanksgiving after 9/11, a Jewish group in New York City created such a script, inspired by the Haggadah, a text read by famous during Passover seders. Called “America’s Table,” you can print out this pdf from the American Jewish Council website and assign readings to people, or just use the end as a kind of unison reading:
“We are thankful for the freedom to speak our minds.
We are thankful for the freedom to change our minds…
We are thankful for the freedom to work for a better world….
In America, each of us is entitled to a place at the table.”
Create Fun Distractions And Remember Why You Like Your Family
When I teach parents about the awesome tool of “problem-solving rituals” and how to create rituals to deal with a toddler’s tantrums, almost all are some form of pre-meditated distraction. To avoid getting bogged down in political acrimony, plan some fun activities you can do all together or in small groups. What makes your crowd laugh? One way to set the tone for that is appropriate music: I suggest you borrow selections from this awesome Thanksgiving playlist in which every song is about food (“Lonesome Electric Turkey” by Frank Zappa to James Taylor’s “Sweet Potato Pie.”) You are welcome!
Have fun! Even if things go badly, you can be grateful that Thanksgiving only happens once a year.