Thanksgiving is many things to many people. But it is not without its land mines. Here are five things you should not do at Thanksgiving:
Believe that Donna Reed is real.
Ditto for all those other happy-happy families you see on Hallmark Hall of Fame movies around the holidays. No Virginia, no family ever really gets along that well. While our Thanksgiving table may be more pleasant than the Kardashian's, there are still bound to be -- shall we say? -- "situations." It may be that Aunt Jess drinks too much or Uncle Bob can't keep his homophobic opinions to himself; it may be that cousin Peter recently found Jesus and thinks you should too. Families are families -- disagreements, dirty laundry and all. And Thanksgiving seems to be the holiday where the dysfunction in our families rears its ugly head.
The trick is learning how to manage the conflicts. If you know where the hot buttons are, do your best to avoid them. Hillary Clinton may be your hero but perhaps you don't need to remind your father-in-law of that, especially not during his diatribe on how Ebola is all President Obama's fault. Seating your "close the borders" stepdad next to your son's first-generation American new girlfriend may not be a great idea either.
But the truth is, there is very little you can do to control your relatives, although you can control how you respond to them. We have a friend who one year kept a timer ticking on the fireplace mantle. When we asked if it was there to remind her when the turkey came out of the oven, she replied with a sly smile, "No, I set it to when I think my mother and her new husband will go home."
The other thing to remember is that when it comes to conflicts between family members, they don't necessarily need to involve you. Don't take sides and don't assume it's your job to resolve those conflicts on Thanksgiving. Practice smiling and nodding.
"Since it takes two to create an argument, simply choose not to provoke or engage with opposition," said Austin Texas family psychologist Carl Pickhardt and author of "Stop the Screaming." He added, "To promote peaceful family co-existence this family holiday, resolve not to cooperate in conflict."
We know a hostess who sends evites to her Thanksgiving table for one reason: She wants her guests to know when she expects them to go home so she writes 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. Thanksgiving doesn't have to be an eight-hour marathon with people arriving early to help and then insisting they stay for the clean up. Mind you, there's nothing wrong with offering to come early to help prepare the meal; just make sure you actually help and aren't the guest who stands around with a wine glass expecting your hostess to keep it filled while she's busy cooking. Let's face it, some kitchens are just too small for more than one chef, and some hostesses don't find it all that helpful when their helpers don't know their way around her kitchen. An equally magnanimous offer is to bring a prepared dish -- one that you make at home before you arrive and then don't have to ask things like "where do you keep your whisk?" As for staying late to help clean up, just make sure your hosts intend to do the clean up that night. Some people much prefer going to bed and tackling the kitchen in the morning.
While we readily admit that the world would be a happier place if everyone got to pick three caloric-free days a year, that is sadly not the case. We are what we eat, and sitting down and consuming 4,000 calories in one meal remains something that isn't particularly healthful. Many Thanksgiving plates exceed an entire day's worth of calories. Don't do it.
And in case you were wondering -- as we were -- you can actually die just from eating one meal. In recent decades, researchers have the studied the physiological events that take place after eating a meal packed with carbohydrates, fat and salt -- i.e. Thanksgiving. It's not pretty. According to Consumer Reports on Health, a study of about 2,000 heart attack patients showed that an unusually large meal quadrupled the chance of having a heart attack within the two hours after the last burp.
Black Wednesday, as the evening before Thanksgiving is known, is widely considered to be one of the biggest bar drinking nights of the year. College students have arrived home and are out reuniting with high school friends, it's the start of a long weekend of no work for many, and bars are packed.
Without wanting to rain on anyone's parade, police roadblocks are generally out operating in force on Black Wednesday. Don't forget the option of car services.
Don't forgive to give thanks.
While the voices of criticism always give a rousing what-for to the commercialization of Christmas, little is said about the lost message of Thanksgiving. Take a minute to reflect on what you have to be thankful about and spread it forward.