My Multi-Family Thanksgiving Tradition Actually Works

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Who says in-laws can’t get along?

When my husband, Anders, proposed to me in May 2008, we didn’t have much time to celebrate on our own. There was too much else to do; after all, our undergraduate commencement ceremony was only five days later. We also knew that at some point in the middle of all of the commotion associated with getting engaged and graduating from college, we had to prepare for another major life event: the meeting of the in-laws.

Anders and I had met each other’s families before, but they had never met each other. We planned a dinner for the night before graduation. Even though I had no reason to suspect that anything would go wrong—our parents are all lovely people—I felt a bit apprehensive leading up to the meeting. How would our families get along? I knew Anders’ parents liked me, but did that mean they would automatically like my parents? More importantly, did they really need to like them? After all, my maternal and paternal grandparents knew each other well, but they were hardly close. In-laws aren’t expected to develop an intimate relationship. Intellectually, I knew that as long as my parents and Anders’ parents were able to be polite to each other and support our marriage, nothing else was necessary. Emotionally, however, that wasn’t enough for me. I knew I wanted our families to mean more to each other than that.

The night of the dinner came. To my delight, our parents got along wonderfully. So wonderfully that six months later a second dinner took place: a multi-family Thanksgiving dinner, hosted by my parents. Full disclosure: Anders and I suggested the dinner largely for our own convenience. It was important for us to celebrate Thanksgiving with our own families, but we also wanted to celebrate it with each other. The idea of choosing between our parents or our partner seemed unfair, so we concocted the idea of a joint dinner as a third option. Luckily, our families were game, and our second gathering was even better than the first. That night inaugurated a tradition: We now celebrate Thanksgiving all together every year.

Certainly, this type of celebration takes a great deal of planning and effort. None of us live particularly close to each other; my parents live in Massachusetts, my in-laws live in Illinois, and Anders and I live in New York. The traveling, though, is part of what makes the celebration special. We can’t just get together for dinner whenever we feel like it, so when we do, it’s meaningful. Traveling to each other’s homes also gives my parents and my in-laws an opportunity to see each other’s histories and lives in action. It’s one thing to share a family story on its own, without any tangible context, but it’s something else entirely to pick up someone else’s photo album and have them narrate it to you. Rather than just hearing about each other’s lives, our families can see them and be a part of them.

This tradition feels very specific to my relationship with Anders because Thanksgiving is the only holiday that both of our families celebrate. Christmas is celebrated with his family, Rosh Hashanah and Passover are celebrated with my family, and we normally spend other U.S. holidays, like Memorial Day and the Fourth of July, with our friends. Thanksgiving is significant, because it is the one time of year when the cultures and traditions in which we grew up overlap. In an interfaith relationship, it’s easy to get bogged down in the details of differences, so I value Thanksgiving as a time when both of our families are able to share equally in a holiday celebration.

In the months leading up to our wedding, I was reminded frequently that weddings are not just about the happy couple. They’re also about each partner’s family, as well as the family created by the union. Though I understood this on our wedding day, I understand it even more when I think about the Thanksgivings we’ve shared together. Our original idea for a joint Thanksgiving was created as a compromise, so that we would be able to spend the holiday together, as well as with our respective families. As it turns out, the multi-family gathering isn’t a compromise at all, but the most authentic way for us to share our gratitude with our families. Even if in-laws don’t have to like each other, I love mine. My parents love them, too, and at this point, spending the holiday separately would feel incomplete. Rather than buy into the notion that holidays must be divided amongst families, we use Thanksgiving as the opportunity to reinvent what family means to us. It doesn’t have to be an issue of either/or. In fact, the inclusiveness of our Thanksgivings together has been responsible for the creation of many of my favorite holiday memories.

Later this month, the Polanskys and Nelsons will meet at my in-law’s house in Illinois. We will eat turkey, drink wine, and share stories about our lives from the past year and earlier. Most importantly, we will give thanks for the opportunity to come together, not as distinct pairs, but as members of one united family.

Carrie Nelson is a freelance writer and filmmaker. She has written about gender, sexuality, and film/TV for websites such as Gender Across Borders (of which she is a co-founder), Bitch Magazine, The Frisky, and Bitch Flicks. She is pursuing an MA in Media Studies at The New School, and she is passionate about using nonfiction media as a tool to advance feminist and queer social justice. Find her on Twitter @CarrieANelson.

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