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Is the Holiday Dinner Dead?


We usually have the discussion on the night before Thanksgiving. It happens as my husband and I are cleaning the kitchen after the last onslaught of cooking and chopping. We’re achy and footsore, and we reek of raw onions. We should take our showers. Instead, my husband will raise the question: Will anyone prepare our traditional holiday dinner when we are gone?

The most likely answer, it seems, is no.

After all, many of our peers spend their holidays in restaurants. “We didn’t have to wash dishes!” they exclaim, with an air of having discovered the New World. Other friends can’t hide their delight at learning that holiday meals can be ordered from their local supermarkets. Still other friends flee the whole issue by booking a holiday cruise. Can we expect our harried children to do more, just out of loyalty to our family traditions?

We probably shouldn’t.

It is true that our family loves holiday get-togethers. My daughters arrive early in the morning to crumble cornbread for the dressing and cut up apples and oranges for the fruit salad. The kids enjoy helping to cook the cranberry sauce, listening for the soft explosions as the berries pop. The men pitch in to carve the turkey or the ham. Our tables have centerpieces, and we use the good china.

That’s not to say that there haven’t been bumps in the road. Turkeys have stubbornly refused to thaw. Heating elements have gone out. Dinner rolls have been burned. Many times it’s been a challenge to get the holiday meal on the table before we all fainted from hunger. But we have always persevered.

A Tradition in Jeopardy?

But there are signs that even in our family, the holiday dinner is endangered.

My kids either don’t have a dining room, or they use the dining room for a home office or for some other purpose. None of them has multiple sets of dishes or flatware. And while they are all competent cooks, they all have many things they would rather do. Clearly the holiday dinner as my husband and I do it is unlikely to survive our demise. But that’s okay, because it’s possible to honor tradition and still make a few changes.

I’ve already learned to make it easier on everyone by compromising a little. We still set the table with good china, but after the good dishes have been enjoyed and are loaded in the dishwasher, we break out the paper plates. We’ve added vegetarian stuffing and kale salad to the menu as family members have changed their eating habits. Last year I discovered that most people can’t tell the difference between prepared pie crusts and those made from my mother’s treasured recipe. Traditions, it turns out, can be tweaked a little without harm.

When my husband and I are gone, maybe the kids will choose a different kind of celebration. We live in coastal Texas, where lots of people celebrate with homemade tamales or a big pot of gumbo. Maybe they will opt for one of these or begin their own new tradition.

What’s Really Important

This is where I’m expected to say that the most important thing is being together. And that is true. But even that goal isn’t easily accomplished. When children and grandchildren acquire partners, it’s only right that we share them with their other families. There are different ways to handle this situation. When I was young, we spent Thanksgiving with one side of the family and Christmas with the other, then switched the following year. It has become increasingly common for extended families to hold their celebrations either early or late, so that family members don’t have to choose where to go on the actual holiday. Still, in every family there will be times when someone is deployed overseas, or on a mission trip, or grounded for medical reasons and can’t be with the family. We’ve had years when family members moved heaven and earth to be here for a holiday dinner and then ended up in bed with a virus!

This year our oldest granddaughter will miss our Christmas celebration because it’s the only time she and her best travel buddy can get away from work at the same time. So while we are opening presents, she’ll be celebrating in Australia. And that’s okay, because seeing the world is her dream. At least through modern technology we’ll be able to share a bit of our holiday with our granddaughter and also get a glimpse of life down under.

The perfect holiday dinner, where every menu item comes out perfectly and is beautifully served, where every family member is present, has always been elusive. The holiday dinner isn’t endangered, not really. As long as people enjoy good food and family members love each other, it will survive, in one form or another.

That’s what I’ll tell my husband on this Thanksgiving eve.

Susan Adcox is a writer specializing in grandparenting topics. She is the author of Stories From My Grandparent: An Heirloom Journal for Your Grandchild.

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