I love family dinners. Of course I do; I love to eat. I also love my family. And this time of year is a great time for both. Some men are born lucky; others have large families. I’m one of the latter, but I also feel lucky because my family generally gets along with each other even though my wife and I have five adult children (four with spouses) and 14 grandchildren ranging in age from 17 to two. With that many people in one room (assuming we can find a room big enough), there are bound to be problems from time to time. Sometimes our discussions turn to dentistry (we have three dentists in the family who like to talk about teeth, which can lead to boredom for the rest of us), religion (with some believers and others not so much), or politics (with liberals, conservatives, and moderates all being represented).
Our first two Thanksgivings after law school graduation were two of my most memorable. At the first one, we had recently moved to Denver, and as the holiday began, so did the snow. And boy did it snow! We received over 20 inches within a 24-hour period. The roads were clogged, meaning we were essentially locked-in at home for the weekend with no Black Friday online shopping available, as Al Gore hadn’t invented the internet back then. But we loved being together, and were grateful that we had a beautiful little home to protect us. The next year (actually the day after Thanksgiving), our third son was born happy and healthy, which reminded us how miraculous life is, and amazed us at how feelings of love just kept expanding as we added another little one to our family.
But few families, including ours, can keep the fun in dysfunctional each and every time we get together. Statistics show the holidays are the peak time for family violence, emergency room visits, and crises for those struggling with mental illness (which is probably all of us to some degree). With differences in personalities and philosophies, on occasion the discussions within my normally happy family can get a bit … loud. But usually we end up agreeing to disagree, and move on. Although my family is far from perfect, and since the only food that never goes up in price is food for thought, here are a few tips that I have learned over the years from movies centered on Thanksgiving or the dinner table that might help all of us have a happier Thanksgiving:
- Don’t set your expectations too high, either for the meal itself or for how everyone will get along. Family therapists tell us that one of the keys to family happiness is lowering expectations, for if our expectations are low, we are rarely disappointed. I’m not sure that’s always true, but it is at Thanksgiving. In short, no family is perfect. Few of us can cook like Wolfgang Puck so expect something to go wrong with the meal, or at least expect someone not to like everything on the table. For example, our family often debates whether yams should be simply baked, candied, or on the menu at all. With high expectations, we sometimes will find ourselves feeling like this mother from Home for the Holidays[i]:
So expect something to go wrong. More importantly, plan ahead on how you will react to the unexpected. If you had an unhappy experience at a prior Thanksgiving, think about what went wrong and how you might fix it this time around, or at least find something soft you can throw so no windows or furnishings get broken this Thanksgiving.
- Don’t ask a family member to do something they are uncomfortable doing. If you have a cousin that doesn’t (or can’t) cook, don’t ask that cousin to prepare the green bean casserole (or any other dish requiring time in the kitchen). If your dinner is to be pot luck, have that cousin bring the wine or other drinks, or chips and salsa or something similar as an appetizer. Or, if a family member hasn’t been in a church for decades, don’t ask that person to lead the family prayer, unless you want it to go something like this scene from Meet the Parents[ii]:
These kind of situations may be good for a laugh, but at someone else’s expense. It is much better to keep everyone’s feelings from turning raw if we can.
- Family dinners are a great time for family talk, but be careful of the subject matter. It might not be a good idea to ask Aunt Harriet how her diet is going (unless she’s noticeably lost weight, and then maybe you should bring it up), or why your 35-year-old cousin Bill isn’t married yet. And try to avoid those subjects that might be a trigger to some members of the family. Religion and politics are the usual suspects here. When it comes to family dynamics, I try to remember this scene from The Big Chill[iii]:
We all tend to see things from our own perspective, and others might see that perspective as manipulating or rationalizing, with each of us intending, sometimes unconsciously, to do whatever is necessary to get what we want. You know things are getting out of hand if attacks turn personal and more and more family members are joining the fray. For those situations, try to have an exit strategy. Change the subject, suggest going on a walk or try to inject some humor into the situation. If you anticipate trouble between certain family members, you might consider a different seating arrangement this year in which the potential combatants are separated and surrounded by those who tend to be family peacemakers.
- Develop Family traditions. Whether it is playing touch football in the backyard, having ping pong or board game tournaments, or having a particular food every Thanksgiving, family traditions and rituals help sustain family happiness and strengthen family bonds. With traditions in place, each family member will know what to expect. Even if you personally are not into traditions, those traditions might be important to other family members, so ease up on them and just try to enjoy the day. We had the family tradition of going around the table and having each family member say something they were thankful for. And you couldn’t repeat something another family member had already said. This was one of the few times any of our children volunteered to go first at anything. We thought this tradition would lead to some heavy discussions about being grateful for things that really mattered. Usually, we were somewhat disappointed, as most would say the same old trite things, but at least it got everyone to think about gratitude, at least for the moment.
I recently heard one suggestion for a family tradition that I really liked. Each family member tells a story that they remember about another family member. Each family member would tell a story about the family member on that person’s right so no family member is left out and no one becomes the center of most of the conversation. Hopefully, if you try this tradition, it will go better than this family’s ride to Thanksgiving dinner in this scene from Pieces of April[iv]:
Expanding this tradition to asking older family members to tell something from their childhood might make this experience even more enriching.
- Be grateful and focus on those who might not have a family, or at least not as great as your own. One of my favorite movies about Thanksgiving is Planes, Trains and Automobiles, which deals not so much with Thanksgiving dinner itself, but with the difficulties in just getting there. I love the last scene, which sums up better than I could the attitude, feelings and family remembrances we should have at this time of year, and which reminds us that we are all part of the same family – the human family:
During this holiday season, I hope we can say, with Henry David Thoreau, I am grateful for what I have and am. My thanksgiving is perpetual.
[i] Home for the Holidays
- Production Company: Paramount Pictures, Polygram Filmed Entertainment, Egg Pictures
- Director: Jodie Foster
- Screenwriters: W.D. Richter (based on the short story by Chris Radant)
- Starring: Holly Hunter, Anne Bancroft, and Robert Downey, Jr.
- Release date: November 3, 1995
[ii]Meet the Parents
- Production Company: Universal Pictures, DreamWorks, Nancy Tenenbaum Films
- Director: Jay Roach
- Screenwriters: Greg Glienna, Mary Ruth Clarke
- Starring: Ben Stiller, Robert DeNiro, Teri Polo
- Release date: October 6, 2000
[iii]The Big Chill
- Production Company: Columbia Pictures, Carson Productions, Columbia-Delphi Productions
- Director: Lawrence Kasdan
- Screenwriters: Lawrence Kasdan and Barbara Benedek
- Starring: Tom Berenger, Glenn Close, Jeff Goldblum
- Release date: September 30, 1983
[iv] Pieces of April
- Production Company: United Artists, IFC Productions, InDigEnt
- Director: Peter Hedges
- Screenwriters: Peter Hedges
- Starring: Katie Holmes, Oliver Platt, Patricia Clarkson
- Release date: October 19, 2003