Thanksgiving Without the Traditions?

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Thanksgiving traditionsI have never liked Thanksgiving.

I’m not sure if it was the lack of candy or presents or that the main meal was made up of food I didn’t like or because I had to sit in the car for hours on the way to my grandmother’s house where there would be no cousins my age. Whatever the reason, it has left a bad taste in my mouth, like a pie left in the oven too long.

The only Thanksgiving I can remember enjoying was when we took the train into the city to see the Macy’s parade from my dad’s office window. This was exciting. Unusual. A break from the tradition. And I loved it. Seeing the enormous Snoopy and Sonic balloons–it was the 90s–made me feel huge and small all in the same breath. Hands pressed to the window looking out over Broadway, and I could see the giant bobbing heads of the balloons and the tiny ant-like spectators below.

As I have gotten older, I understand Thanksgiving differently, and it hasn’t made me like it any better. In fact, it has only gotten more problematic.

Learning about the true history of the day stands in stark contrast to how we had learned about it as kids. Plus, my kids have three sets of grandparents, which is wonderful for so many reasons–but it also means more people jockeying for face-time on the day.

As a teacher who often feels compelled to mark these annual moments on the calendar, I have noticed a movement to pivot from the classic story of Thanksgiving to a day of gratitude. To stop and reflect on what we are grateful for in our lives, communities, and the world around us. I am certainly thankful for the extra day off from work, for watching my kids jump at the sight of the fifty-foot tall Pikachu, for the smell of an apple pie emanating from the kitchen. (Pie is my favorite dessert, after all.)

There are those who are reading this who may find my stance on Thanksgiving upsetting. But what about tradition? they might ask. But I loved that day in the city–we went with friends instead of family–because it was so different. It was a magical change from the car ride-stuffy house-football-turkey-pie-car ride spectral blur of traditional Thanksgivings past. (And don’t get me wrong. I do love traditions. Try to stop me from eating candy before dinner on Halloween. I dare you.)

But maybe Thanksgiving, because we are constantly trying to reckon with its meaning and place in our modern lives, should be a day that is up-for-grabs.

Make it whatever kind of holiday you want. Sure, have a turkey, if that’s what the people want. But have pasta, too. (We do manicotti or lasagna.) Skip the sweet potatoes if you prefer the Russets. Not into football? Play a round of family charades. Drink wine. (There should definitely be wine. Or craft beer. Or bourbon. Or Bloody Marys.)

Fight back against the urge to do something just because it’s how we’ve always done it. Make the tradition not to have one.

Volunteer, do one of those Turkey Trot 5k runs, make chalk art in the driveway, eat leftover Halloween candy, record the parade and skip the parts you don’t like, feel old when the band you liked as a teenager is on a float, and you don’t even recognize any of them, sleep in, wake up early and go watch the balloons get blown up, be alone, be with friends.

If the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that we can change, adapt, try something new, flourish. Be grateful for a day off to do with as you please. For the freedom to shirk traditions or to make new ones. You never know which one will stick, and if the activity you choose turns out to be a dud, remember, there’s always next year.

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Juliana is an English teacher, aspiring novelist, and mother to redheaded sons. (No, her husband doesn't have red hair. Yes, it was a surprise!) She grew up in Scarsdale and now teaches at her rival high school - Mamaroneck - where she also lives with her (brown-haired) husband, Mike, and their two (orange-haired, according to Noah) sons, Noah (2016) and Simon (2019). When she has a free moment (haha) she is reading something: YA Romance, humorous essays, poetry, thrillers, student work, and, sometimes, her own works-in-progress.

1 COMMENT

  1. Yes! I love this! I think there is something amazing about switching up a holiday to fit where you are in life that year. Our family celebrates Christmas and I think this applies there too. Christmas is so often steeped in tradition. As a child, I remember doing the same thing every year and I liked that. But now that I have kids and we don’t live near family, each year looks a little different. It can take a little work to try something different but it does release the reins of expectation and makes the holiday exciting!

    Thanks for this!!

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