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As the mother of all family dinners, Thanksgiving can come with a huge helping of expectation and a side of emotional baggage, says Anne K. Fishel, PhD, director of the MGH Family and Couples Therapy Program, and director and co-founder of The Family Dinner Project in the MGH Psychiatry Academy.
“From it being a poignant reminder of time passing as we remember beloved family members no longer at the table to worrying about the food, drink or controversial conversations that may arise, the holiday can easily turn from joyful to stressful,” she says. Here, Fishel shares tips to keep Thanksgiving calm, cozy and civil.
Think of the family as a stew pot
Most of us live in a bubble with like-minded people, but our family can be a stew pot where we can be confronted with different perspectives. While these contrary points of view can be stress-inducing, try to make Thanksgiving the start of empathy, of being curious about a family member’s differing viewpoint. Saying “I’m really curious about…” or “Could you share with me…?” might start a conversation you’ll be glad you had. If that is too tall an order, make Thanksgiving an opportunity to suggest a conversation at a later date.
Broaden the perspective to include history
Discussing an often-polarizing topic, such as politics, through the lens of time travel can be less charged than talking about present day. When kids know their family stories they grow up to be more resilient, and knowing that family members have survived and learned from other turbulent times can be reassuring. Some guiding questions can include:
- Who remembers the first vote they cast? For whom did you vote?
- Does anyone recall Thanksgiving 1963, six days after President Kennedy’s assassination? What was that Thanksgiving like in your home?
Or, you might try a round of impeachment trivia. Of the three previous presidents who have faced impeachment, who was acquitted by a single vote in the Senate? Which was one investigated by William Weld and Hilary Rodham? Which featured a blue dress?
Use your host role to take some preemptive steps
You might want to send a group email ahead of time, setting an expectation that discourages conflict. You could ask family members to arrive at dinner ready to focus on what they feel thankful for or what they love about the family. Once the dinner gets rolling, consider announcing that everyone is going to switch seats after each course.
Do not forget the fun
Thanksgiving should be an opportunity to gather and enjoy one another’s company. A few years ago, when I worried about possible friction, I came up with The Hat Game. As guests arrive, ask them to write answers anonymously to various prompts on a Post-it and put them in a hat. Here are some prompts you might use:
- What character in a children’s book did you most admire?
- What animal would you most like to be?
- Who do you wish could join us for this holiday meal, dead or alive, famous or not?
At dinner, read the answers aloud and everyone tries to guess who gave each answer. This allows for a tablewide conversation that everyone can participate in, regardless of age or differing outlooks. You might also suggest some classic games that are easier to play with a large group, such as Telephone, Celebrity or Charades, or make a family charades version where guests act out favorite family memories.As I think about this holiday, I remember Abraham Lincoln, who issued a proclamation to make Thanksgiving a national celebration in the depths of the Civil War, arguably a more contentious time to be an American: I wish you and your family “the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility and union.”
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