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Celebrate with stories this Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving is less than two weeks away. And I’m not ready. It’s not about the meal. Most of us spent a lot of energy and time getting that part right. In our family, we’ve been sharing the feast responsibility for years now. Two to three weeks in advance, I send out the request for volunteers to bring sides, entrees, and dessert. Thanks to my niece, Buffy, we’re using, to help us coordinate this year’s collective effort. It’s a big improvement from our traditional group email message and annoying “please remember to include all when you hit send” reminder. Rich’s fried turkey has become our standard, along with Phyllis’ cranberry relish and Kristin’s wild cherry and fennel stuffing and mashed potatoes with garlic. We have a few serious contenders for favorite dessert. The meal is important—so few of us are farmers anymore and we’re celebrating a harvest holiday that’s been around for thousands of years.

That’s the basic message of Thanksgiving: we look back as we’ve survived the past year. We’re filled with gratitude. Then we look forward: we hope to have enough of what we need to survive the coming year. The big meal we love represents our harvest. And we become very attached to our Thanksgiving recipes. The reason makes sense. We come to the table to celebrate that we’ve made it safely through another year. Familiar dishes tell us that we’ve reached our destination. While we’ve changed, the food stays the same. Like a final lap marker, the smell of our family’s favorite recipe tells us that we crossed the finish line!

But here’s what’s always bothered me. We take hours to prepare the meal, then sit down and devour it like locusts and thirty minutes later people are finished and ready to go watch the football game. As important as the meal is we sometimes forget that food gets eaten, while the memory of our time together is what truly sustains us. We should feed people’s bodies and their souls. This takes some planning, especially as busy families have less dinnertime conversation experience and guests living in different communities have fewer shared regular interactions. Part of that soul feeding can take the form of a ceremony.

We’ve been doing some version of a Freedom’s Feast ceremony for the past 10 years in our family. We now use the “Try a Slice” variation at our table and adapt it differently each year to make it fresh. As we mark our first decade of Freedom’s Feast inspired holiday celebration, what I can comfortably say is that Thanksgiving just wouldn’t be Thanksgiving without Freedom’s Feast. Our children have grown up with it. They expect our Thanksgiving to include a really interesting table conversation about what it means to be Americans and why we are thankful for that privilege. Our family represents the range of the political spectrum so we get different ideas and perspectives. The ceremony is the frame. It’s the signal that tells us this is important, a unique day with a special purpose. It says, “Listen up, folks!” And we do.

Time’s running out because I want story-tellers this year. People we love have passed on and we haven’t done a good job of passing on their stories. Their stories are our inheritance, just as America is. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to have some of the people who made us who we are at our table? We’ll use “A Memory Harvest,” a one page ceremony to gather brief stories of those who are no longer with us at our Thanksgiving table. Instead of going around the table and asking everyone to say what they’re thankful for this year, we will use “A Memory Harvest” instead. I’ll ask guests to write what they’re thankful for on little parchment sheets and we’ll post them on a board book for guests to read by the buffet table.

I sent out an email on Saturday night inviting 7 guests to tell a three minute story about a parent, grandparent, or other loved one this Thanksgiving. I sent them the Tips for Storytellers. No one has responded yet. That’s the running out of time part. Everyone is so busy. So I will have to follow up and help a few who may not understand the request. I also have a story I want to tell. I’ve got to find the picture I have in mind, or a toy helicopter. We need to set tables for 23 and figure out the seating. If we leave it to chance, some guests might be ignored, others will just sit with the people they know best, and we miss the opportunity to learn more about people in our own family.

A holiday is what you make it. It can come and go in a flurry of frantic activity. The logistics will always be there. But, if you are willing to take a little more time and think about what you want your family and guests to take away from the table other than full bellies, then help to create the experience you would like them to have. The holiday only comes once a year, but the memories you make together can last forever. I can’t wait to hear the stories people bring this Thanksgiving as we share our harvest meal and celebrate US.

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