Thanksgiving Traditions

Shared by Jen Gibson


I love the holiday season. I’m especially in love with Thanksgiving. Yes, Christmas is wonderful, but there is something special about gathering family and friends around the table for the comfort food feast. Before Eli, the gathering was always at my mom’s house. She taught me about opening the door and inviting anyone who didn’t have family to join us. We are a big appetizer family, so hours of prep and food devouring made for an all-day Thanksgiving affair. Our stuffed bellies eased just enough before the next round at Christmas, when we would do it all over again. 

As the oldest of a blended family, I did not question or ask for our holiday traditions to change. I chalked up the stereotypical holiday drama—this is what all families are like. I was not miserable or necessarily unhappy with our traditions, but I went along with them. This is the way we do things, and thinking of doing anything different felt foreign. I have years of memories with my mom’s halls echoing with loud chaos, the pounding of little kid feet, and perfect wafting smells coming from her kitchen. After losing Eli, I needed to uproot most things from my life and unfortunately for my blended family, the  unquestioned traditions needed to be included in that uprooting. 

In 2012, my son died a month before Thanksgiving. A month before my favorite holiday. The first year of grief felt like a fog, and that first holiday season I was on auto pilot. I could not handle the thought of normal, of tradition, or of what we always do. My boy was supposed to be there for these things, and now he was gone. All hopes and dreams of holidays with him died alongside him. So we packed up our minivan, and escaped the morning of Thanksgiving to Nashville, to be with extended family that our girls had never met. Then, to continue our escape route, we took our girls to Disney World (distraction, fun, and laughing were badly needed). Christmas was a worse fog as I did my best to still give my girls a fun Christmas. I detailed more about our first holiday season on Eli’s blog:

After my first Thanksgiving escape, I realized I was no longer bound to family traditions. I could—we could—create our own traditions based on our own set of values. The next two years we began to feel out our level of comfort, as well as identify what we wanted the holiday to be. Thanksgiving that second year was spent renting the dining room, kitchen, and gym at our church, and inviting everyone that didn’t have family in the area or would have been alone. We gathered over thirty of us, and we realized that we enjoy being around a lot of people. For year three we went to a friend’s house and got to see how their family celebrated the holiday. We learned we could enjoy gathering around one table. Then year four came, and we were ready to open our own door again. Ready to truly open our hearts again. I was ready to take the past few years’ worth of lessons and bring them into our own home. 


The lessons we learned: 

  1. We needed new traditions mixed with old. Grandma’s stuffing is a keeper, but do we really need everyone gathering around the television?! 
  2. We wanted to keep the “front door open” rule—everyone is welcome.
  3. Loud is encouraged; drama is not.
  4. The holiday is about gratitude, not stress.
  5. Dinner is around a certain time, not exact. Though we do love all sitting at the table at once, it just isn’t feasible with young kids. Come when you want, leave when you want, bring what you want…the door is open. 
  6. Each year we add new food to try, new people to the party, and new things for the kids. New is not the same as bad. 

I have found a new freedom in creating and enjoying my favorite holiday, and I look forward to it every year. So very soon you will find me in my kitchen with my red apron on, covered in something, with the door wide open. Music will be softly playing, and the biggest smile will be on my face as company arrives. I like to think that Eli would love this holiday, too, and that he is proud of us for creating something new and special—because of him. 


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