Thanksgiving Traditions – Weaving the Old with the New

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My grandparents, Ted and Bill Ackler, in Bangor, ME, circa 1984

Growing up, my family Thanksgivings were rich with tradition. My grandmother and grandfather came of age during the depression, where everything got used. Together we canned the vegetables they grew in their garden – tomatoes, cucumbers for relish, beans, okra, as well as berries as fruit. My grandmother would braid woolen rugs with the wool scraps from clothing and the woolen mills; it was years before I knew people would buy other kinds of rugs than what my grandmother made by hand.

The bulk of our Thanksgiving feasts were from scratch, and always overflowing on the table. There had to be more food than all who were invited could consume. Possibly the old New Englanders were really waiting for Elijah, making sure he was fed in the off months before Passover arrived.

A constant was the roast turkey with stuffing, put into the oven mid-morning on Thanksgiving for an early evening dinner. Cranberry sauce freshly made with a touch of grated orange, a different sweet potato dish every year, a couple of vegetable dishes, and mashed potatoes. At my grandmother’s it was always burned rolls, the tradition being she inevitably forgot to take them out of the oven. Then pie for dessert. My mom for many years would make her pies all from scratch with crusts that would melt in your mouth. She was often known to make a different pie for as many guests who would be at the table.

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Thanksgiving at the Ackler Chapin home in New York, 2015

The table was perfect. Napkins, the "good" silverware, the "nice" plates, trivets, and of course the serving utensils. It had to be set just so – first with the tablecloth, then the flowers, silver, and crystal. This was not the Baccarat, or Tiffany silver, or the florist arranged flowers that are all matching. From family to family we used the special pieces of what was passed down from one generation to another. The cut glass, the pewter, and bringing in cut flowers and greens that were alive outside that morning, mixed with the flowers we made by hand.

Looking back, I am not sure if wine was ever served, though I know my grandfather was a man who loved his cocktails. 

Thanksgiving this year will be different for many, my family included. We will have far fewer joining us; my mother and stepfather will stay in New Hampshire, as will one of my brothers-in-law. My dear sister will be staying in Oregon. We will stay put and celebrate in New York – my husband, Peter, my sons, Sam and Will, my nephew, Drew, and me. As we try to keep socially distant, it also means less people around our table. We’re keeping our family healthy and together by keeping it apart. 

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Red Berries, Thanksgiving in Talent, OR, 2019

Possibly due to the pandemic, I am anchoring in many traditions that I remember as a child. Some were learned from visiting my grandparents, others simply from my parents and then each of their partners and my in-laws. Like my grandmother weaving her woolen rugs, we will braid these old rituals with the new, put in place from the time Peter and I set up our home together and realized that we really could start our own traditions. For instance – giblets do not need to go in the gravy. Also, wine being served is a must.  

We will mix the various serving dishes and utensils that we have been given by our families. The wine glasses will be from one of our grandmother’s collections and the table will have our bright red tablecloth we found in Santa Fe a few years back, when we still traveled. I am not yet sure of the exact menu, or wine we will serve, but we will be cooking, imbibing, laughing, and baking together throughout the day of Thanksgiving.

Calling upon rituals, holiday-related or otherwise, can help us navigate these unfamiliar and frightening times. In her November 2 New York Times article, Jane Brody recommends establishing soul-lifting routines to stay mentally healthy such as a 20-minute walk in the sunshine every morning, or a weekly call to a geographically distant relative or friend.

Practicing mindfulness, gratitude and acts of charity are ways to feel connected and fulfilled as well. Thanksgiving is an ideal time to give back to those who are in need, displaced, down on their luck or in-between. The pandemic and COIVD-19 have changed people’s lives, often for the worse. We can all help by making donations of money, food, or time. There are numerous organizations or houses of worship in your community where you can reach out and make a difference.

This is a year we are all being asked to rethink our Thanksgiving traditions. Let us find happiness by beginning new traditions, hanging onto an old favorite, and practicing a tradition of gratitude and charity to help those around us.

Enjoy a peaceful and filling Thanksgiving.

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With my sister and dad, Thanksgiving in Talent, OR, 2016

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