We put a lot of stock in the idea that families — whatever form “family” might take — create meaning, and identity, through ritual. When the kids are little, that might mean reading to them in bed every night for twenty minutes, or going for long bike rides on Saturday afternoons and talking about life its ownself. It can be something as simple cranking some AC/DC (aka “pump-up” music) on our way to a soccer game, or, in what seems to be our most sacred ritual of the moment, having the exact same argument with our oldest daughter, when she comes down for breakfast in the morning, about the wisdom of wearing a short-sleeve t-shirt when it’s 38 freaking degrees outside. But the king of all rituals for us are the holidays — and in particular, that great secular celebration known as Thanksgiving.
We love Thanksgiving, and have done our best to pass that love on to our kids. Everything about the day gives comfort, a series of rituals so well-worn that the kids could probably recite the day’s slate of activities by heart: Roll out of bed. Watch some Sponge Bob. Eat Nana’s French Toast (and eat well, because there will NOT BE ANOTHER BITE OF FOOD until show time). Sit around in PJs with their cousins. As the grown-ups trim the Brussels sprouts and peel the potatoes, the kids go off and begin preparing a one-act play they will perform after dinner — one that, while often thin on plot, never fails to do an excellent job of skewering the parents in the room. Around 3:00, go for a long family walk. As final prep takes place and the grown-ups fret about whether the turkey is cooked, the kids gather upstairs and rehearse their play. When the serving plates have been warmed and all the food is laid out on the buffet, we grab our plates and pile it on, uniting the whole mess with a thick coat of gravy, and then we sit down and eat until we’re comatose. The perfect end to a perfect day.
Except for one thing: We could never figure out a way to say thanks.
It wasn’t that we didn’t try. One of the adults would usually raise a glass and express how lucky and grateful he or she felt to be here, in this room, with this group of people — but the problem was, the kids were starving and talking (ages 5-11, remember) and everyone was slightly distracted and Grandma, as per usual, was telling everyone to hurry before it gets cold, and so it never really ended up feeling like we had that moment. I know this is gonna sound a little righteous, but that moment — along with the 20-pound turkey — is what makes Thanksgiving different from any other Thursday night dinner, or any other holiday for that matter. That moment is what this is all about! I describe it to the kids as the difference between saying thank you and being thankful.
So last year, we decided to institutionalize — okay, enforce — the giving of thanks. The goal was to make this something the kids would actually consent to doing, i.e. to make it a little fun, to keep it from feeling solemn or dutiful. We made a Thanksgiving Mad-Libs, printed one out for everyone, kids and adults, and handed them out before dinner with a stipulation: Everyone had to go off by themselves and fill them out, and not only that, they had to put some thought into it. They had to care. When we sat down, obscenely full plates before us, we took turns reading them aloud. And just because this was largely done with kids in mind does not mean that grown-ups got away with sitting by and watching: Everyone filled one out, and everyone gave thanks. Even Papa Ivan, the chocolate-loving patriarch, whose love for his children and grandchildren (see above), was plain for all to see — and for which we are thankful. — Andy