Every year around this time, I mentally play through a lowlight reel of yesteryear’s Thanksgiving dinner conversations. If I could show you the short film replay in my head, you’d see an insane mashup of programming. Imagine hardcore Bible Study meets History Channel style lessons meets end times predictions meets Fox News style political debate.
Don’t get me wrong. I love my family. But like a lot of families, over Thanksgiving dinner, we tend to get really intense.
For years, I reveled in the controversy. I stoked the flames of political debate by inserting politics or some type of moral debate into every conversation. I’ve argued with my uncles, my cousins, my grandpa, and my parents. I was delightful dinner company. #sarcasm
Back then, in the foolishness of my youth, I thought I was creating connections. It turns out I was just creating division. I should have noticed by the way the dinner table slowly emptied when I dove heartlong into voicing my deeply held convictions.
Anyway, everything started to change once I got married. Why? Well, to put it gently, my wife always helps me see my blind spots. Through her piercingly blank looks at the dinner table and well-placed comments after the meal, she pointed out precisely how intense and exhausting Thanksgiving dinners were.
A few years of conflict with her and a few helpful books later, I finally bought in to her point of view. And I slowly decided to try reversing the damage I had helped create.
How? I tried to shift my focus from arguing about politics to making meaningful memories.
Connection Over Competition
Why? I’ve slowly realized, when I turn Thanksgiving dinner into a debate, I’m not motivated by establishing relational connections. I’m motivated by winning verbal competitions. It’s the same reason I love playing basketball with short people or checkers with kids. I win! As I get older and visit my family less and less, I don’t want to use my time with them to win our conversations. I want to use my time to reestablish our connections.
Even after realizing my error, I’m still tempted to argue. Why? Well, I’m a competitive guy. And too often, I fool myself into thinking everyone in the family is picking up right where we left off. But “picking up right where we left off” is an illusion.
In reality, I’ve changed. They’ve changed. Sometimes in small ways. Sometimes dramatically. In the last twelve months I’ve switched careers twice, flipped my opinion on capital punishment, and witnessed my daughter grow from an infant who couldn’t walk into a toddler who now climbs into my lap and hesitantly whispers the words I read to her.
I’m not discounting the importance of family. After all, we lived a formative era of our lives under the same roof. One of my favorite Ben Rector songs, “Old Friends,” contains a genius line, “You can’t make old friends.” My family includes a group of my oldest friends. My parents and siblings have loved me from the cradle. And they’ll love me to the grave. But my relationships with some of them hold less intimacy than my friendships with the neighbors and buddies I hang out with on a bi-weekly basis.
So now, on Thanksgiving, instead of tearing apart the logic of my family members, I try to build bridges. I enlist my wife to help me plan a day of games and specific conversation starters. Some of our ideas soar into annual legends. Some of them fall so flat they become infamously hilarious stories.
If you’re looking to start a few life-giving Thanksgiving traditions with your family to replace awkward political debates, use these suggestions as loose templates, not foolproof ideas. And try not be devastated if they don’t work.
1. Plan a day of games.
Without a plan, I waste days, including Thanksgiving Day. I watch too many hours of football, sit at the dinner table too long, and eat way too much turkey and pumpkin pie. My wife and I now arrive with tons of games and a flexible schedule for the day. We make only two goals for day of games: Have fun. Don’t be ultra competitive.
In the morning, we set up a flag football field in my parents’ back yard complete with first down markers and pylons. Then I set up Star Wars and GI Joe action figures for a marshmallow gun shooting game on the front porch. Then we set out the board games and card games for small groups or large groups to play before and after dinner. Bananagrams, Scrabble, UpWords, Exploding Kittens, and any other group games always top the list of favorites.
2. Ask specific questions.
When I enter Thanksgiving Day, I try to plan a few really specific questions about each person’s job or kids or church. Then I listen for what makes them passionate. I’ve found asking specific questions about their lives is still comfortable, but it allows me to move past the superficiality of politics and sports.
Instead of hearing rehearsed slogans, I get to hear stories. Instead of mindlessly absorbing Fox News or CNN regurgitations, I learn about the day to day lives of the people I grew up with.
In the last three years, older family members who typically don’t talk have told me stories from past wars and from their childhood. Some have even looked at me and said, “You know. I haven’t talked about that in years.” They told me a story because I asked and listened.
3. Plan some traditions for dinner.
Our family always goes around the table and says what we’re thankful for. A couple of years ago, my wife and I tried something new. We had everyone write out a specific story of gratitude from their year. We laid three ground rules: 1. No politics. 2. Keep it under 3 minutes. 3. Write it down.
Within the first two people who shared, one said, “I’m thankful Trump was elected.” The political rule was decimated. The next person killed the time limit and rabbit trailed for 12 minutes. Four out of thirteen people wrote a story. My wife and I represented two of the four. It’s like my family heard the ground rules and decided to break every rule as quickly as possible.
I know this last example won’t encourage you to give any effort to planning traditions, but I needed to be real. Not all of the things we’ve tried have worked. Our success rate stands at about 50/50.
My Favorite Childhood Thanksgiving
I don’t think my wife and I conjured up the game day idea out of nowhere. Embedded deep in my memories of childhood, I always dig up one Thanksgiving Day we spent at my Uncle Hoz and Aunt Chris’s house. My parents, my sisters, and I arrived to a house filled with games. The garage sported a ping pong table. On the living room carpet I saw table basketball, a weird 80’s mix of ping pong, basketball, and foosball. I think there was even a Plinko board taller than I was. We spent all day playing games with our cousins and aunts and uncles. As the youngest cousin, I lost most of the games, but I loved it!
It only happened once. But I wished for it every year afterward.
I don’t remember any of the conversations we had around Thanksgiving Dinner Table when I was a kid, but I do still remember that Thanksgiving Game Day with precise detail. I remember my older cousin Lance telling me how good I was at ping pong for my age. I remember the trophy ceremony in front of a stone fireplace. And I remember falling asleep on the way home thinking it was the one of the best days of my life.
I want to help create that kind of Thanksgiving for my family.
Like I said earlier, our attempts fail half the time. We don’t always make Thanksgiving Day into a soaring success, but it has improved… a lot. Even though some of our ideas are still met with eye rolls and straight up mutiny, I think our family knows we care about them.
Last year, I realized how much our Thanksgiving had changed for the better when my nephew came up to me and asked, “Hey Uncle Rob, where are the marshmallow guns?” In the busyness of my life, I had forgotten one of our small traditions. But he didn’t. He remembered.