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An Update on the Opt-Out Thanksgiving

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THANKSGIVING PLACECARDS
Courtesy of Lisa McElroy

Now that Thanksgiving is over, people are turning their attention to decorating and shopping, baking and wrapping. But I don't want Thanksgiving to be over -- and not just because the winter holidays are barreling down upon us with locomotive speed.

I don't want Thanksgiving to be over because it was THAT GOOD.

Some of you will remember that my family decided to opt out of Thanksgiving, admitting in the wake of house-wide virus (nope, our eyeballs never started bleeding) and a curiously vacant guest list that the efforts of cleaning, shopping, and cooking were too overwhelming to contemplate. We chose to skip the traditional five course dinner at home, heading out to Monaco (well, a hotel by that name) anyway, about two hours away.

In our Huffington Post conversation about my Thanksgiving plan, many of you were on board with the plan. Some of you shared your own plans to go away to exotic spots of your own. But some of you questioned whether Thanksgiving isn't really about having a family gather at home for a feast. Some of you suggested that we volunteer at a homeless shelter or a soup kitchen. And still others asked whether making others work on Thanksgiving so that my family could kick back was inherently unfair.

The nice thing? Getting away to a place where I could really relax and just talk with my family helped me think about all of these Thanksgiving questions -- and make some new traditions while I was at it.

When you spend Thanksgiving in Monaco you learn a lot of important lessons. Some of them have to do with eating your green beans even when they are touching your cranberry sauce. Others about treating people like you would want to be treated, about generosity going both ways, and about finding joy in the simple things -- like a good movie on Thanksgiving evening or a goldfish swimming in a bowl in your hotel room.

Take this: hot chocolate on Thanksgiving morning now tops our new list of Turkey Day must-have's. The hotel where we stayed had a little table set up in the lobby with a steaming pot, plus toppings galore: marshmallows, chocolate chips, caramel sauce . . . . yummm. The kids mixed up and downed a bunch of chocolaty concoctions -- far more than the recommended daily allowance -- while I pretended not to see. I had to bury my head in a couch pillow at one point. We all got a lot of giggles out of it. The day started off warm and cozy and sweet.

A fire in the fireplace? Gotta have that, too, on a day about being with family and being grateful for all that's good. While we cocooned ourselves away in our room a lot, watching movies and reading and cuddling with the wiener dogs, we also spent a pretty good chunk of time in the lobby, sitting in front of the fireplace and watching all of the people walk by on the streets outside. At one point, the hotel staff broke out the board games -- Scrabble, it turns out, is quite a fine Thanksgiving activity. As are charades. As is walking (OK, running) the wiener dogs through beautiful Old Town Alexandria (complete with old brick sidewalks and fairy lights in the trees). As is sleeping long and deep in the afternoon after a big turkey dinner instead of washing china and storing leftovers.

Corn muffins for Thanksgiving dinner? Never included them on our menu before. Why not? my kids asked. After all, the Pilgrims had corn. That was one of the few things those early European settlers did have, actually. And tiny corn muffins slathered with butter are super delicious, as it turns out, dipped in apple parsnip soup or tasted with a bite of salad or covered with a little cranberry sauce. The only problem with replicating them at home is that we'd need about six muffin tins to make enough to satisfy tween appetites. No problem, the kids replied. We'll grease them and spoon the batter in if you'll help us use the mixer. Deal.

Conversation and cuddles? They're important parts of every Thanksgiving, but the deal about being in a hotel instead of in a home is that you can focus on the chatting and not on the chopping. Sprawled out with my girls on a hotel room bed, I heard a lot more than usual about the little things in life that make them thankful (think art class, ice skating, and that cute boy in Spanish) and those things that don't (homework checks, laundry folding, celery in stuffing). I heard about what they noticed (Mom asked the hotel staff not to clean but to go home early, Dad left a big tip for the waiter), what they believed without question (yes, the two goldfish in our room really were named Beans and Patty -- just like our dachshunds. What a coincidence!), and what really got them charged up (the prospect of a manned Mars mission, a new Rick Riordan book, the hand motions for a song they're singing in chorus).

Opting out of Thanksgiving wasn't perfect, by any means, even thought it was REALLY GOOD. I'll admit it -- we missed some traditions, too. There was no wishbone to dry on the kitchen sill, then pull for a dream come true. There were no thick turkey sandwiches washed down with milk at 3:00 a.m. The wiener dogs stayed in the room while we feasted instead of under the table (the best place, as any self-respecting hound knows, to catch a bit of crispy skin).

And there's still stuff left to do. We're bonding with family over Christmas this year instead of Thanksgiving. My brother, his wife, and their two boys are flying out from Colorado (the boys think they're taking a sleigh pulled by eight tiny reindeer), and we'll whoop it up with decorating the tree and baking holiday cookies and putting carrots and reindeer kibble out on the deck for hungry travelers. I've got to get ready for that. We're signing up to volunteer, no, not feeding homeless humans, but tossing MilkBones to rescued mutts at the local shelter. As it turns out, our choice to wait until after Thanksgiving was a good one - almost all shelters and soup kitchens report that Thanksgiving and Christmas Day are the only days during the year when they're full up with willing hands and glad hearts.

So that's this year. What about next? Will I opt out of Thanksgiving? I'm not sure. But opting out of home cooked traditions last week allowed me to opt in to my family, to connect with my husband and daughters and, yes, wiener dogs in a way that I haven't been able to do in quite a while.

For that, I am truly thankful.