One year, several years ago, I asked my mom if I could bring my then-boyfriend home for Thanksgiving. He didn't have local family to celebrate with and I thought it'd be nice to spend the day together.
"I think that would make me and your stepfather very uncomfortable," she said.
It's not that she didn't like my boyfriend. It's just that I'm happily married to someone else, and having my boyfriend and my husband both there for the holidays seemed like a bit much to her.
I decided not to push it. I went home for a family dinner with my husband and kids, and met up with my boyfriend at my place afterwards. We had dessert together, and it was lovely.
Did I do the right thing? It was the right thing for my relationship with my mom, certainly.
It would have been a different story if my boyfriend and I had a different relationship. As it was we were close, deeply in love even, but not cohabiting or working towards building a partnership. The mechanics of our lives were separate. Our families were separate. If we'd been cohabiting or otherwise building a family together, spending the holidays together would have been a package deal: We'd all go to Mom's or no one would.
As it was, I was willing to compromise. It wasn't the most politically radical move of my life, but on balance, it was the right decision for me at the time.
Going home for the holidays once you're an adult can be a tricky business under any circumstances. It can be hard to make your grown-up life fit in with your family-of-origin.
When you have more than one partner, there can be a whole new layer of challenges. Ultimately of course, bringing your husband and your sweetie home for the holidays shouldn't be a big deal. We all go out and form new relationships as adults, and our parents have to deal with them. They might not like our choice of partners, but they don't get to pick.
And if what they don't like about your date is that she's bossy or he's a bore, most family members won't feel like it's their position to say anything. They certainly won't bar you from Thanksgiving for your personality faults.
If their objection to your choice in partners is that you've chosen more than one, though, be prepared for some pushback.
Like any unusual choice, this one sometimes meets with discomfort and resistance from our loved ones. And because it's an unusual choice, without a lot of social support (to put it mildly), people feel more entitled to express their objections. It's as if you're doing something wrong by having more than partner, being a square peg in their round hole of expectations.
If you do want to take more than one partner home for the holidays, here are some suggestions for how to make it easier on everyone:
- If you can help it, don't pick this moment to come out to Mom and Dad. The holidays are a stressful time already, and they'll be more receptive and welcoming to your partners if they already know about the relationships and are making a separate decision about whether or not to include them in the family rituals.
- If you do need to come out to your parents now, there's lots of good advice about how to do it. My two cents: Stay calm, and be ready to be mature enough for both of you. Remember that this is a surprise to them, but not to you. Everyone's first reaction to big surprises is immature and reactive. Don't expect their first response to be their last or only response.
- If they already know about the relationship, you're just discussing logistics for a family get-together.
- You might offer to make those logistics easier by offering to bring food, or to come early to help with set-up or stay late to clean-up. If we're talking about Christmas and your family tends to do expensive gifts, suggest alternatives like doing a service project together.
- It's perfectly reasonable to point out that their prejudice is showing if they simply object to your sweetie being there because they see the relationship as less legit than the one you share with your spouse.
- Finally, though, you're going to your parents' home. They get to choose who they're comfortable having in their home and under what circumstances. You can't, and shouldn't, bludgeon or guilt-trip them into having your whole poly family to dinner if the scene is just going to be uncomfortable for everyone.
- Instead you can decline their invitation, politely and simply explain why, and offer to get together another time on neutral ground or at your home.
- Or you can do what I did, and let your relationship with your partners take a back seat to keeping the peace with your family of origin. I can't recommend this course of action, though I've confessed to taking it. All I can say about this is that in some situations it will feel like the right move and you shouldn't beat yourself up about it. Yes, it would be great to live in a world where social bias against poly relationships wasn't a factor. But we don't live in that world. We live in a world where many, many parents will react like mine did to the notion of having multiple partners around the holiday table, and that has to be dealt with in a way that treats everyone with as much love and gentleness as possible. Change comes in slow, small, brave steps.
Let's say your parents do welcome you and your sweeties into their home for the holidays. How best to make that go off smoothly for everyone?
Look, I'm not Miss Manners. I can't tell you exactly how to finesse the situation so that your parents will think your relationships are awesome and can't wait to invite you back. I can tell you to be polite, to be gentle with your hosts.
I don't have a ton of experience with being poly at the holiday table, since my efforts at that haven't really gotten far off the ground. What I do have is a lot of long experience being vegetarian at Thanksgiving. Some lessons from that: Bring your own main dish, so as not to burden the host with preparing a second one just for you. Don't make a fuss about the meat at the center of the table; let everyone else enjoy their meal.
Similarly, I'd be aware of the way that your family structure is potentially creating more work for your folks and be prepared to pitch in to mitigate that work. Offer to wash dishes. Bring dessert. Offer to host the whole shebang next year if that makes sense for your family.
Above all, remember that you're going to a lot of effort to spend time with these people -- all these people, your parents and your partners -- because you love them. You want them to connect with each other. Look for the comfort zone between your partners and your parents, just as you would with one partner. Don't expect them to fit perfectly together, but find the points of overlap and focus on those. Does everyone love Chinese food? Maybe skip the traditional meal and order take-out. Universal fondness for board games? Bring some and cut the conversation short in favor of a few rounds of Dixit.
Do what works for your whole family. And attempt to have fun in the process. After all, these holidays are a celebration.
"There are a number of things that you can bring that would be welcome. I think that bringing wine makes sense. I think that bringing an after-dinner drink -- bourbon or rye -- makes sense. I think that flowers are terrific, and I think that bringing a pie is often great. One of the hardest things for Thanksgiving hosts to pull off is to nail the entire savory side of the equation and the dessert. It's already a big project, so maybe they get one pie, two pies out -- but if you can bring an additional homemade pie, that's a really lovely thing to do."
"You smile, you say thank you, you give them a drink, you find a way to get another person in at the table and you give thanks for their being there. The thing about Thanksgiving is, it requires radical acceptance of the premise of the day: We are thankful for our friends, we are thankful for everyone there, we are thankful for the meal and all of its complex glory. Someone will always show up with an unannounced plus-one. Someone will always show up with a big tureen of green Jell-O with slivers. Someone will always show up with terrible wine. Someone will always show up with no wine at all. Someone will always show up with bad table manners. And we just have to kind of roll with it a little bit -- more than roll with it, embrace it. It's a time for saying 'Welcome,' and it's a time for making people welcome. And I think that there is just no incentive in becoming aggrieved on Thanksgiving because people are acting in a way that is anathema to the way you want them to act. You're not gonna change anyone's behavior on Thanksgiving. You're not going to make the drunk cousin not be drunk on Thanksgiving. You know him as your drunk cousin 'cause he gets drunk."
"You are in control of your own Thanksgiving, so I’d just seat them as far apart from one another as possible, or invite enough people to kind of dilute the toxicity of their disfavor with one another. Maybe have two tables and a giant ficus plant between the tables and the warring people at two separate ends of the room. I’ve seen Thanksgivings where ex-spouses are both there and they loathe one another, but space between them, the proper application of alcohol, plenty of food and a nice long walk afterward can be great in that situation."
On the subject of hors d'oeuvres at Thanksgiving, Sifton describes himself as an "absolutist": "I did not ... spend all of Thursday cooking turkey, sides and gravy, then set a table appropriate to presidents and kings, so that you could come into my house and eat a pound and a half of nuts and guacamole before sitting down for the Thanksgiving feast," he recently told Dinner: A Love Story's Jenny Rosenstrach. "There is no place for an appetizer course in a proper Thanksgiving meal." However, cocktails before dinner are a different story. "You should have a cocktail, absolutely!" said Sifton. "I mean ... in my family we generally start out with some prosecco and work our way through from there into whites into reds and then we down-shift into bourbon at the end. But I know plenty of people who start their holiday off with a nice stiff cocktail, and I commend that completely. I recommend it! Go for it! I may be anti-appetizer, but cocktails are A-OK by me."
"You certainly don't want people getting so drunk that they're throwing up in your house, and of course there should be designated drivers. I'm in no way encouraging drunk driving. But by the same token, I think that any time questions are raised about how to limit people's drinking, it's a problem. It casts a kind of puritan pall over the whole affair. The point of this holiday is to celebrate bounty, to be immensely generous in your offering of food and wine. I'm not saying that we should be doing shots. There's no place for a beer bong at Thanksgiving. But if somebody wants an extra glass of wine, you should give it to them. If they're drunk, take their keys and put them in a cab or make them sleep it off. But that's probably not going to happen. What we're really talking about is someone has two, three glasses of wine over the course of the eight hours they're in your house. You have to be very careful about saying, 'Now now now, can't have too good a time' -- that's just nuts. Next you'll be limiting people's pie intake, and you can't do that. That said, drink responsibly."
"This is an issue that [arises] between children and parents, between married people and their in-laws, and sometimes between siblings. Those are the three main dynamics of competition when it comes to various dishes. I think it’s important to tread lightly here. If your mother is the one who makes the turkey, she’s probably the one who ought to make the turkey until such time that you are hosting your own Thanksgiving and she is coming into your home, at which point you can roast your own turkey. And she may say something nasty about your turkey, and you just have to smile and thank her for being there and thank her for giving [you] life. You've got to be cool about it. And no poaching! You have to be very careful about how you appropriate someone else’s dish. If your sister is the one who makes the mashed potatoes, and she always makes them badly, you have to go about taking that task away from her very carefully. The mashed potatoes may be excellent, actually, and really your issue is that she’s mean or something that has nothing to do with the food. You get yourself in real trouble just snatching someone’s dish away from them."
"All those side dishes. You could come to my house and have a plate full of side dishes and no turkey, and you'd be great. You have carrots, you have mashed potatoes, you have sweet potatoes. One of the stuffings we make doesn't have sausage in it. If your particular vegetarian eats shellfish, serve oysters at the beginning. I think we generally make a mac 'n cheese too, so that's there, though I find that most vegetarians hate mac 'n cheese. There are more vegetables on my table during the Thanksgiving meal than really at any other time of the year. I don't think vegetarians are lining up to come to Thanksgiving at my house -- I'm a fairly bird-centric, bacon-centric type in my cooking -- but they have certainly eaten well when they've come."
"Yeah. I mean... have a turkey or don't have a turkey. Don't have a tofurky, that's just nuts. There are a million things that you can make wth tofu that taste better than tofu turkey, I can tell you that."
"Turducken is a Southern tradition. It's pretty cool in its way -- a boned-out turkey stuffed with a boned-out duck, which is stuffed with a boned-out chicken, and then the whole thing is sort of squeezed back into a roughly turkey-like shape, roasted, sometimes around a stuffing of some kind, and then sliced vertically into these big slabs that combine dark meat from all three species and then whatever else is in there. It's kind of like a multi-species porchetta, the Italian dish, and it's pretty cool, to tell you the truth. It's not in my family's tradition, but if it is in yours, I think that's great. And it would be kind of a cool project for someone to take on at Thanksgiving."
"I think it's important to say that project-based Thanksgiving meals really should only come after many, many, many years of cooking a traditional bird and just nailing the basics. You gotta know how to swim before you can try and be Greg Louganis."
"It depends how many people you have -- I think sometimes it's cool to have a kids table if there are enough kids to make it worthwhile and there are enough big kids to kind of keep control of the situation -- 10, 11 and up. I've done it both ways. I love having my kids at the table, but now that they're getting a little older -- they're 9 and 11 -- if we have enough cousins over to set up a group for them where they can kind of take care of themselves, I think they have a better time. I don't think kids should be banished to a kids table because they have a role to play at a grown-up one, but if you can create a kids table that's awesome for kids, by all means do it."
"I think the most important thing to get right, to really cook Thanksgiving well as I say in the book, is to concentrate on setting that table, not to discover at the last minute that you don't have any napkins of any sort or that you only have seven forks when you need nine. It doesn't matter if anything matches, it needn't be fancy, but it does matter that you've taken some time to think about what the table's going to look like and what it's going to feel like when you're all sitting around it. [Thanksgiving] should not have the quality of a lunchroom meal or of a picnic. This is a big, serious harvest meal that allows friends and family, who often haven't seen one another in quite some time, to come together and celebrate their friendship, celebrate their love for one another, celebrate their differences, put on hold their feuds, and to do it in the presence of a well-laid table really makes a difference. I've seen it happen. The kids behave a little bit better, adults are a little more civil and act a little more grown-up. You'll see. I remember one Thanksgiving sitting down at the table, and a guy I know, a good friend of mine who never takes his ballcap off, took his ballcap off! You should set your table as if for a sacrament. It really should be this beautiful place that you're going to share the meal. You'll kind of destroy it in the process, and that's the beauty of it, as the gravy stains mount and the candles gutter out and wax gets on the tablecloth."
"I'm not against it. I've done it, and it was pretty affecting, but I think it was about eight people in the one that I remember, and I was thinking, 'If this were 14 people, it'd be a little bit difficult.' Also, it puts a lot of pressure on people, and if you have 20 people there and someone is thankful that Jeter broke his ankle or whatever, it just screws up the whole vibe of the thing. That said, I think it is incredibly important that someone -- maybe the host -- stand up, ring a glass, get everyone's attention and, if not say grace, at least thank everyone or be thankful for the meal and the presence of the meal. Thanksgiving is not just a day off from work where you get to drink all day and fall asleep on the couch watching a movie. It's more than that. It is America's greatest secular holiday. It's the one holiday that all Americans share -- there are no religious differences. Thanksgiving is when America gathers together to celebrate itself, and it does it in a way that's not sort of ra-ra nationalist in the way that the Fourth of July is, but in a way that is family-focused, friend-focused, harvest-focused and food-focused. The turkey and sides trump the hot dogs and apple pie of the Fourth of July every time. Without being too sappy about it, I think it really matters that you -- with some degree of solemnity -- recognize that fact before you start to eat."
Order it here.
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