THIS YEAR, MY SISTERS declared some weeks ago, they wanted a "traditional" Thanksgiving.
Everything just the way it used to be: my mother doing all the cooking, because only she, after all, can make bread stuffing and candied sweet potatoes the way she used to do; the football game for background noise; we kids sitting around cozily drinking hot cider, watching the Macy's parade and occasionally stirring a pot on the stove.
Their little plan sounded quite lovely. There was just one problem with it.
A truly traditional Thanksgiving, they decided, included no one but immediate family. Friends were persona non grata. So were in-laws, a prohibition that, as you might expect, went over like a lead-stuffed turkey among those of us who have them. "But it just won't be the same with other people there," they said. "We want it to be just us."
You wonder how wars start? You think you don't understand why the Croats, the Serbs and the Bosnians have been killing each other these past few years?
The ties of blood
Just look at what happens to thousands of families this time of year -- I'm told, reassuringly, that mine isn't the only one that turns into a fighting clan -- and you'll know. The forces at work are the same. Blood and tradition. Tribalism. Unwillingness to tolerate different people and their different ways.
God forbid, what if somebody else's mother brought the stuffing, and it was apple-pecan instead of plain bread? What if somebody else's father came and suggested bourbon instead of rum in the cherished family eggnog, or -- worse yet -- dared to suggest that, while this was good, the eggnog his grandmother used to make was still the best he'd ever tasted? Why, it would just ruin everything!
"There's no place like home for the holidays," the song goes. The trouble is, it doesn't say whose home. My parents', where my husband still sometimes feels on the outside of the inside jokes, or his, where I can't get used to margarine instead of butter? My house, where family means extended family, or my sister's, where family means just us?
'Stop and go'
Getting along and mixing traditions is hard, which, I suppose, is why most families segregate, requiring the various offspring and their spouses to polarize in one direction or the other. Many people say they solve this problem with the old "stop and go" compromise: "We'll stop at your folks in the morning, then go to mine for dinner." Maybe this works for them, but it seemed a half-baked solution the one time I tried it.
Couldn't get settled at Stop No. 1 because we didn't want to get too comfortable and then have to leave, felt like we were making a token appearance, ate more at brunch than we intended. Was tired and cranky by the time we got to Stop No. 2, too full to enjoy the heaps of food that someone's mother or sister was waiting for us ecstatically to devour.
Enough, we said after that, deciding to bridge the Great Familial Divide by inviting everybody on both sides to our house. It worked pretty well for a time. But this year, the hard-liners seem bent on turning back the clock. They don't want war with the tribes that have invaded their territory, but, like those factions in Bosnia, they aren't quite sure they really want to live with these people, either. Too much mingling, and you know what could happen. They might discover that the eggnog really is better with bourbon. And then it wouldn't be the same any more.
Too high a price
The truth, of course, is that it's never the same. Families grow and change as people marry, have children, move away and pass on. So, inevitably, does the way they have to do things. That's why we can't hold on to traditions too tightly. The price of insisting that nobody but Uncle Charlie carve the turkey or of refusing to set a plate for the new girlfriend someone brought home from college ends up being greater than the tradition was ever worth. It's paid in frustration, stress and hurt feelings.
Thus, the season of joy and sharing turns into a headache.
It isn't the right kind of food or the slavish resurrection of the routine we grew up with that makes these holidays worth something. Isn't that the message of almost every holiday book or movie? Louisa May Alcott's March sisters had the best Christmas of their lives when they reached beyond the family circle and gave up their breakfast to the starving Hummel children. In "A Christmas Story," that funny movie about a boy in the 1940s and his wish for a Red Ryder air rifle, the dog runs off with the turkey and the family ends up eating chow mein at a restaurant and singing carols with the Chinese waiters. Tradition flies away with the holiday bird, and they have a wonderful time anyway.
Which is not to say I'm advocating Chinese carry-out for this year's Christmas dinner -- just enough tolerance to eat it along with the cherished bread stuffing if someone else's mother shows up saying she didn't feel like cooking this year.
Elise Armacost is The Sun's editorial writer in Anne Arundel County.