Judging from the store displays, you would assume Halloween rolls right into Christmas, with nothing special in between. But one of our most humble and beloved holidays shows up on the same Thursday every year, just as it has since the Civil War. Even before it was proclaimed a federal holiday by Lincoln, Thanksgiving was an annual tradition of some sort since this nation was just a babe.

This is a holiday with no gifts, no costumes (unless you’re a child playing a pilgrim in the class play) and no major decorating. And yet for many people, Thanksgiving makes the top three on their list of favorite holidays. How could such a modest holiday, on a weekday no less, be so popular? And what causes people to board planes, trains and automobiles to make the mass exodus for basically a huge feeding frenzy?

I won’t bore you with the origin of Thanksgiving, we are all familiar with the early Pilgrims and their gratitude to God and their Native American friends for helping them not only survive but thrive in their new land. The holiday familiar to most of us involves spending time with loved ones, expressing gratitude for blessings great and small, and eating. Always the eating. Maybe some football. But absolutely the eating.

For many families, the menu is all about tradition. Grandma’s oyster stuffing that only one person can choke down? Has to be made, it’s a tradition. That greenish jello mold, with mysterious food items embalmed in its jiggly shape? Tradition. I mean, who’s going to tell Aunt Emma that we don’t like it? My own menu has little variation, usually just the decision of whether the soup should be clam chowder or crab soup. If we travel, I usually contribute my spiced carrots and a dessert. How many of us have made the car trip, balancing a casserole or carrot cake on our laps for three hours? 

I only know Thanksgiving in the northeast and Ohio. So for me, the memory is of traveling through cool weather, rain or snow to arrive at the hosting house. The windows glow from within, and when the front door opens the warmth and laughter are the first things to greet us. We nibble on amazing appetizers while the multiple cooks fuss over the stove and share recipes. It’s a time of catching up, trying to squeeze months’ worth of news into a few hours.

For me it’s all about that oversized bird, roasting until the skin is a dark golden and the warm moist aroma fills every space of the house.

I can’t imagine having ham for Thanksgiving, although I know some people do. For me it’s all about that oversized bird, roasting until the skin is a dark golden and the warm moist aroma fills every space of the house. When that big boy gets pulled out and the carving begins, I’m willing to risk losing a finger to get the first piece of crispy skin.

In large families, the card tables get pulled out, and hopefully we can gather enough mismatched chairs to seat everyone. Some of us are lucky enough to have long tables where everyone can sit together, but most homes get stretched to capacity for the day. The kids may be seated in the next room, and pity the poor “tweener” who gets the embarrassing seat assignment at the kids’ table. This is your chance to catch up with long distance cousins, laughing over stories that only cousins understand. The liberal might be sitting next to a conservative, and the vegan may be across from the deer hunter…but for a few hours the differences are forgotten while we share the common bond of family and history. Between bites of creamy mashed potatoes and sausage stuffing (my husband makes the best) we hear about new babies, new jobs, and new journeys, and sometimes share a tear over those missing from the table.

Traditionally, the post-dinner time was for lolling about in a tryptophan induced daze, jostling for couch space to nap or watch the game. Some folks work off a few of the million calories they just consumed with a bit of touch football or a family hike. Then after all the dishes are cleared and the last pan is put away, it’s time for Round Two and some dessert that you couldn’t possibly eat two hours earlier.

And maybe that’s what makes Thanksgiving so special—the little actions and traditions that inspire us to drive or fly long distances just to spend some time with the people who know us the most and still want to be with us. I’ve learned why my own parents get so worked up about their kids going home for the holiday, because now I’m excited about hosting my own. Sadly, owning a business means that my own Thanksgiving travel is curtailed for a few years. But the memories of past holidays and knowing that we’re missed will have to do for now, until we can once again drive three hours with a carrot cake on my lap. 

So back off, Santa Clause, and quit crowding Thanksgiving. Let us have this holiday to celebrate our blessings, our families and the traditions we share.