Traditions, turkeyless, and tears
November 15, 2008 5:00 AM   Subscribe

This is the first Thanksgiving we're having since my mom passed away 4 months ago, and I'm not looking forward to it. My sister has invited my little family (me, hubby, and 3yr old) to her in-laws house, but I'm not comfortable with their family. I want to start a tradition at our home, cook something small but special, and do something so I'm not thinking about her all day and how much my heart is broken.

I was extremely close to my mom, and this Thanksgiving is the first major holiday without her and also would have marked her 70th birthday.
I love my sister dearly and I do enjoy her in-laws, but their Thanksgiving holiday is full of 30-40 strangers to me and I'm not comfortable being involved in a production that big. I just want me, my husband, and our little one to stay at home quietly, watch the Macy's Day parade, cook, and maybe plan some family activities.
I'm really looking to starting a tradition of some sort. We had one with mom (which I plan to incorporate), but I want something new as well.

Being that we're 3 people, cooking large amounts of Thanksgiving staples seems a bit silly. I want to cook something extravagant to really make the day special, but I'm not sure what to make.
We have tried to invite friends over, but they're doing their own thing and have tried inviting us. But I really want to stick close to home and with my little family.

So the questions are, what are some traditions we can start and what are some things I can cook?
posted by czechmate to Food & Drink (23 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I'm not sure we get to plan our traditions this way. Why not do what feels right, and if it still feels right next year then do it again? Patterns can emerge gradually; they don't need to be engineered. You're actively mourning. I imagine the idea of taking up a new tradition might seem like a salve to your open wounds but, to me, it seems like a lot to take on. Take care of yourself and your family, and worry about next year next year.
posted by jon1270 at 5:16 AM on November 15, 2008

Do it! and invite your closest friends who have a child, too. My family traded cooking responsibilities and locations for my whole childhood between our house and the home of the couple that babysat my mom and her sisters when they were kids. When they moved to Connecticut, I cried. No more green jello!
posted by parmanparman at 5:19 AM on November 15, 2008

Was there something in particular that your mom liked to cook or have on Thanksgiving? Would making a point of incorporating that dish in your festive meal (and sharing that memory with your little one) make you think about her in a happier way amidst your grief?
My guess is you will be thinking about her off and on all day anyway, so why not have a positive, creative outlet and make something (keep it simple!) with her intentionally in mind.

Another idea: Go for a walk. If it's just you three, fine. If there are friends, go altogether. Leave the turkey or whatever in the oven, the house empty. Are there still leaves on the ground where you live? (Global warming being what it is I'd bet there are.) Ask little one to collect some and make a placemat (iron leaves between 2 sheets of wax paper, not rocket science), centerpiece (put leaves in fruit/gourd/vegetable display--also not rockets science), or, most challenging, make a mobile (tie leaves with thread or fishing line, then tie to stick or some other stand-in).

Thanksgiving Day can be long, even with the Macy's Parade and naps. Kids love projects. Best wishes.
posted by emhutchinson at 5:39 AM on November 15, 2008

First, I'm sorry for your loss. I know how fraught the holidays can be after someone you love has died. I like your idea of cocooning with your husband and child. A few thoughts... If you enjoy music, have a stack of CDs/playlists around to provide comfort and cheer. Remember that your 3-year old will have little, if any, idea what's going on or why you might be sad. Cornish game hens are festive if you don't want to do a whole turkey... but if you like turkey-based leftovers then cook one anyway!

Last, but not least, remember that Thanksgiving is a time for gratitude. Perhaps a tradition where you and your family members reflect on some of the people and experiences they are grateful about will give you a chance to remember and honor your mother. That kind of tradition also easily incorporates children and newcomers to the Thanksgiving table. Reflecting on gratitude grounds everyone in a way that honors past and future: a tradition that has the flexibility to evolve as life--and your Thanksgiving holiday--changes in the years to come. Cheers.
posted by carmicha at 5:43 AM on November 15, 2008 [1 favorite]

As someone who also had to invent a lot of traditions from scratch (but wanted them all to feel "traditional") I can't recommend highly enough inviting some friends over for dinner. If you ask around a little bit, you'll find friends who had no plans (or plans they hate) for Thanksgiving. Inviting them to your table for a meal is really fun and satisfying.
posted by anastasiav at 5:50 AM on November 15, 2008 [1 favorite]

How about spending an hour or two volunteering at a soup kitchen or other food pantry-type operation that serves dinner to folks who have nowhere else to go. Sometimes helping others in need can temper or at least distract from our own mourning.

Another idea for a new tradition: do something to prepare for Christmas. (Don't yell at me for skipping Thanksgiving!) Something like a whole mess of baking could be especially good activity for your daughter in another couple of years. You could make cookies/breads/pies and freeze them until it's gift-giving time in another month. That way you have a built-in activity for Thanksgiving AND a way to minimize stress in the build-up to Christmas because you've already got a freezer full of gifts.

As for cooking your meal, there's no reason you can't cook your favorites but in smaller doses. Instead of a whole turkey, try a turkey breast, a roaster chicken, or cornish game hens. A couple of sweet potatoes, baked and mashed. Fresh spinach/green beans/broccoli. Here's my homemade cranberry sauce that's super easy:

Chop all these in a food processor or blender. Do not remove skin/peels:
12oz bag cranberries
1 whole orange, sliced
1 whole lemon, sliced
1 whole lime, sliced

Put the mix into a saucepan with 1 cup sugar and combine. Cook on med-high for 20-30 minutes until sauce turns bright red. Voila! Fresh cranberry-citrus sauce!

Good luck.
posted by ImproviseOrDie at 5:52 AM on November 15, 2008 [2 favorites]

Your instinct to cocoon is so understandable, but I think there's a way to mourn, support your sister, and still create a special tradition to remember your mom.

If you can bear it, I suggest you go ahead and go to the nobody-knows-us sisterly extravaganza on Thursday, but then invite your sister and her nuclear family to enjoy a smaller remembrance event on Friday or Saturday. Your sister is mourning too, after all, and may want you near her with all those people.

Especially if Thanksgiving also marks your mother's birthday, this is going to be a fraught time, I hate to tell you, for the rest of your life. My mother died when I was a young woman, near Easter. It was 20 years before I could cook an Easter meal again without mourning (my mother was Greek, so Easter's a big deal for us). I found it so hard to do any of her Easter things, so a lot of them have been lost, as we're not part of a larger Greek community. I think it would be a lovely tradition to have the big someone-else's family regular Thanksgiving, and then a smaller more intimate event just for you and your sister and your immediate families to mark your mother's birthday, as an event and a tribute that won't get lost in the generality that is Thanksgiving in the U.S.

I am so so sorry for your loss, and understand how hard the holidays are without our loved ones.
posted by nax at 5:54 AM on November 15, 2008

You can cook turkey on a small scale for Thanksgiving if you have relatively few people. Roast a bone in Turkey Breast rather than a whole turkey (this only works if you're all white meat people, otherwise the dark meat people get cranky). Or go to a real butcher for a smallish bird and have them cut it in half.
posted by jacquilynne at 6:07 AM on November 15, 2008

It's really possible to scale down a large Thanksgiving meal, and cooking it gives you something to do all day - especially if you aim for a late dinner, like at normal dinnertime, rather than a big afternoon feast. You can get a bird that's smaller, 10-12 pounds, and still have some leftovers and the makings of stock without being overwhelmed. The rest is just sides - sit down and figure out what your favorites are, and just make 3 or 4 accompaniments and maybe 1 pie.

I love the idea of volunteering. It can be so healing to see that other people in the world are dealing with their own set of challenges too, and that one thing we all have in common is that occasionally we need to help one another and be the one asking for help. It would be a wonderful memorial observance as well as a new family tradition. Do plan ahead for the young one, because it can be hard to manage to be helpful while also keeping your child engaged and comfortable.

If you want to have guests -- which is fun -- look beyond your close-friend circle. Ask people at work or the daycare or wherever you frequent 'so what are you doing for Thanksgiving?' There are inevitably 'strays' who don't have plans this year for whatever reason. Sometimes having someone you don't know so well is great. My family often has had 'strays' at the Thanksgiving table and it lends a lot of interest and festivity to the event, as you trade stories and get to know one another better.

Another idea for guests is to call any nearby university and ask if there are foreign exchange students who might appreciate an invitation. Those exchange student offices seem to often have clearinghouses for students to hook up with a 'real family' and experience an American Thanksgiving. That could also be a nice tradition, if you enjoy it, and something that would be a great experience for your kids if they grow up with an international Thanksgiving table.

My condolences on your loss...holidays are hard but planning to make them meaningful in as intentional a way as possible is a great idea. I think you are doing very well at acknowledging your grief and thinking about how you want to handle the usual rituals of life in a healing way. May you have a very good holiday!
posted by Miko at 6:20 AM on November 15, 2008

I was going to suggest the university route as well - a lot of my friends in college were international, and they enjoyed doing Thanksgivings with faculty or nearby students' families.

My family's personal tradition for the holidays didn't involve extended family at all. It involved breakfast. Thanksgiving and Christmas mornings, we made Belgian waffles and had at them with toppings. I cannot fathom watching the parade or opening presents without waffles now.
posted by Weighted Companion Cube at 6:38 AM on November 15, 2008 [1 favorite]

Not all turkeys are huge, you can get smaller ones that are not much larger than a chicken. I would go ahead and make a traditional meal, I think it would make you feel better. And add a very indulgent dessert for the small extravagant touch. Add the craft idea above, maybe a Thanksgiving-themed placemat, laminated with a picture of your small family and the year. Make a list on the back of things you are thankful for. My adult kids love these from years past, they show the progression of our family, and we drag them out every year at both holidays. Add one more simple activity, such as the walk, and you've got a very individual and meaningful holiday that revolves around your little family.

My advice is to keep it simple and calm and meaningful. You can add the guests in later years if you want.
posted by raisingsand at 7:33 AM on November 15, 2008 [1 favorite]

Nthing what everyone else has suggested re: what to cook. They're all good suggestions. Just cook what you like and you'll be happy.

Be prepared to be steamrolled by your emotions at some point (or points) during the day. The first few holidays after my father-in-law died (I adored him) were incredibly difficult. Things would be going along smoothly and suddenly I'd feel his absence and the sadness set in. You just push through it, have a cry if you need to, and feel comforted by your memories. I'm so very sorry for your loss.
posted by cooker girl at 7:45 AM on November 15, 2008

If you don't want to cook turkey, try cooking a cornish hen for each person. They look so cute on your plate.
posted by RussHy at 8:14 AM on November 15, 2008

How about the tradition is cooking something new every year together? Find a fancy recipe you want to try, and have everybody cook it together. Have a couple frozen pizzas on hand, just in case...
My family would also invite friends and neighbors without anywhere else to go to holiday meals.
My Dad now volunteers at a local soup kitchen on thanksgiving morning.
there's lots of things you could do, if you're doing it with people you love, it'll be special.
posted by Green Eyed Monster at 8:21 AM on November 15, 2008 [1 favorite]

what are some traditions we can start and what are some things I can cook?

I don't really have any suggestions of traditions, but I just want to say I completely understand your desire to stay at home with your husband and toddler. If that's what you want to do, you should do it. Big events with lots of people, most of whom you don't know, can be uncomfortable. If this is a difficult time for you, because of the loss of your mother, then that's even more reason for you to do what is right for you. After all, it is a holiday, a special day, and it doesn't make sense for you to do something that you don't want to be doing on a day that's supposed to be special.

Another idea for guests is to call any nearby university and ask if there are foreign exchange students who might appreciate an invitation.

Well meant, of course, but that suggestion doesn't mesh with the following desire.

I just want me, my husband, and our little one to stay at home quietly
posted by jayder at 9:03 AM on November 15, 2008

I am sorry for your loss. Sit and look through your photos albums with your family, telling stories to your daughter. Do you have your mom's photos that you can scan and make copies of? Maybe make a scrapbook or if you are interested in that craft (which is a nice gift idea for your sister for a Christmas gift too).
posted by saucysault at 10:23 AM on November 15, 2008

I like making homemade pastas on special occasions. The Silver Spoon Cookbook has two great recipes for pumpkin tortelli and pumpkin gnocchi. Both recipes offer lots of messy kneading, which is great for 3 year olds. The tortelli also offers the use of cookie cutters (for cutting pasta) and stuffing of pasta, which might be too advanced for your little one.

I find working with dough very relaxing (and somewhat time consuming). So you could also consider other special doughy recipes - homemade pie, cinnamon rolls, etc. Spending the day making doughy things sounds to me like a nice relaxing family tradition.

Duck is also festive and is great for small groups; the aforementioned Silver Spoon has a nice Duck a l'Orange recipe.
posted by crazycanuck at 10:29 AM on November 15, 2008 [1 favorite]

A tradition from my college days was for my roommates and I to put up a piece of posterboard on the wall, get our our markers, and write down things were are thankful for. A former roommate is now an English teacher, and she sent me the following email just yesterday:

"So remember how every November we would put up a blank "we are thankful for..." poster in our apartment and then we would fill it by the end of the month? Well, I decided to do the same thing at school. I put a big piece of butcher paper outside my door. I was afraid the kids would think it was stupid, but I thought I'd try. It's gone well - I had to put more paper out the other day.
The best part is that my Honors kids aren't very thankful, I guess, but let me tell you - my lower-level kids are. Even the kids I don't teach. They come in my room for markers to add to it every day now. I wanted to share with you some of the highlights of the poster. I took pictures on my phone and will send them to you if you don't believe me:
I lubb rain.
I thankful my family.
and - my personal favorite:
I am thankful for God, Jeasus, and Church."
posted by kidsleepy at 10:47 AM on November 15, 2008 [3 favorites]

Good easy tradition-starters:
-smells. Do a mulled apple cider that can sit on the stove warming all afternoon, filling your house with good smell. Comforting and memorable for little one.

-songs. A little sing-a-long before dinner maybe, easy traditional American songs. Or put on a musical, like Pirates of Penzance or 1776 or something else that you like, that will get you all singing along.

-a walk around the neighborhood between dinner and dessert. See how many birds you can count, or how many different-colored leaves you can collect, some other simple project.

-grade-school Thanksgiving decorations. Construction paper turkeys, pilgrim hat and Indian feather headband, etc. (historicity-schmistoricity). Salt-dough sculpture. Draw pictures of what you're thankful for. Make up a song about what you're thankful for, with gestures.

-let your kid help you cook. Mashing cooled potatoes; mixing ingredients for pumpkin pie; etc. Or make a nice big breakfast with pancakes or waffles, and then a simpler dinner. Thanksgiving is a good time to just let yourself putter around the kitchen all day.

-simple games or jigsaw puzzles. In our family, card games were always a favorite, though this might require more adults if your little one is not ready for go-fish yet.
posted by LobsterMitten at 4:28 PM on November 15, 2008 [1 favorite]

Also, a quick plug for two orange dishes:
-acorn squash. Super easy. Cut in half, scoop out seeds, butter+brown sugar inside, bake. Then each person has their own little bowl of squash! Amazing to me when I was a kid.
-sweet potato "pucks" with mini marshmallows baked on top. Cut sweet potatoes into rings/pucks, arrange in baking dish, dot with butter, brown sugar, mini marshmallows. Another kid fave.
posted by LobsterMitten at 4:33 PM on November 15, 2008

Other things that are special but not too hard:
-home made bread (no knead bread is a recent easy popular recipe)
-stew (another one that makes the house smell good; search "stew" here for a bunch of good recipes)
-homemade ice cream (homemade ice cream without an ice cream maker)
-hasty pudding or Indian pudding (traditional early American dessert, as in Yankee Doodle)
posted by LobsterMitten at 4:51 PM on November 15, 2008

Thank you all so much for your responses. After discussing most of this with my husband, he suggested we do have some people over (perhaps he's scared I'll cry all day), so if there's no friends available then we'll call the University and see if any students would like to come over.

The recipes and activities provided are fantastic and we have so much to choose from that I'm not afraid we'll run out of things to do or to make the holiday extra special.
posted by czechmate at 5:42 AM on November 16, 2008

My Mom died last December, so I appreciate your feelings, and I'm sorry for your loss. Part of what I love about Thanksgiving is the family traditions, even though 1 tradition was making several dashes to 7-11 for things we really didn't need, but Mom got wound up on holidays. So, whatever you do, remember Mom and other family, with toasts. Sparkling wine or sparkling juice, and lots of clinking.
posted by theora55 at 7:28 AM on November 18, 2008

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