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Thanksgiving Dinner Drama – When Traditions Must Change

HELP.  The dreaded holiday season is now upon us, and it’s only dreaded because of stupid family dynamics. I have a pretty big extended family who traditionally has Thanksgiving dinner together at my Mom’s house. We’ve gotten pretty big now that more of us have gotten married, there are more kids, boyfriends, girlfriends, etc. We’re talking close to 40-45 people.

In addition, my husband’s family has Thanksgiving lunch, as they’ve always done, so he and I usually hit both families (lots of driving, hustling around, no fun for us). His family doesn’t feel comfortable with mine and has yet to accept the invitation to jump on our Thanksgiving and drop their own (and, why should they?).

So, this year, my husband and I have taken over hosting Thanksgiving for a few reasons, including, my Mom is tired of doing it, and we don’t really want to drag our then 8 month old baby through all of that. We want to ENJOY the holiday.

From my side, we invited my parents, my brother, his wife and their two kids, my SIL’s Mom and her husband. From my husband’s side, we invited his parents and his sister and her husband (chain ends there). Well, my aunt and uncle (mom’s brother) are just up in arms that we’ve divided the family and that we have the audacity to suggest we get together at a restaurant on Friday to still celebrate after Black Friday shopping. They are threatening to never speak with any of us again (they’ve all already been fighting since a family gone wrong Greece vacation in June 2014).

What am I supposed to do?? Host 50-55 people in our home for Thanksgiving? I can’t just invite my extended family, we would have to invite my husband’s too, and where would all these people go? And, how is that fun for anyone? Even if we do a potluck, I can’t imagine hosting that! At what point do you draw the line and stop inviting all of these arms of people???

I’m now being blamed for breaking up the family, when all I want is for my son to be able to enjoy the holiday with both sets of grandparents and his FIRST cousins without dragging him 150 miles in the car that day. 1103-15

The inevitable conclusion of creating a family holiday tradition is that eventually it cannot be sustained for a variety of reasons. My husband’s mother’s side of the family hosted an annual holiday get together which had become monstrously huge due to the fact that my MIL was one of 11 siblings!   Every cousin was there so you can imagine how large this gathering was.   But eventually the sisters who hosted this extravaganza grew too old to continue the tradition and it faded into oblivion because none of the subsequent generations was willing to keep it going.

Your mother, as the longtime hostess of the family gathering, should be the one who informs her brother that the tradition she had begun and maintained is in need of a change of plans.  I suspect that your mother was the one who did the bulk of the food preparations while her brother contributed little in comparison.  The people who protest the change in family traditions that are typically associated with eating food are usually the ones who have not invested the most time in hosting, cooking and cleaning.   I can’t recall receiving stories from longtime host/hostesses of big family events bitterly complaining about the change in those traditions since it is they who are weary from often decades of serving the family.

Your aunt and uncle could have volunteered to take over hosting duties for Thanksgiving but appear, instead, to prefer to whine and guilt manipulate to sustain a tradition that serves their needs rather than the needs of your mother to have a break or her desire to pass on the hosting to someone else.  So, the fundamental question to be asked in this situation is,  “Who is being served?”, when assessing people’s attitudes and behaviors.    Your choice to host a smaller family event serves your mother, your husband’s family and your own family.   Your aunt and uncle’s behavior serves themselves with no consideration for the guilt they inflict on your mother for having the audacity to be tired of years of holiday hospitality and family drama they generate because you choose to host a smaller celebration.   It’s all about them.   And when people choose to serve themselves selfishly with no apparent regard for how that affects people they allege to love, I believe you must stiffen the polite spine, ignore the tantrums and continue to extend a cheerful welcome for them to join you and the family for dinner on the Friday after Thanksgiving at a restaurant (making sure you communicate to them that they are paying for themselves unless otherwise arranged).



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  • Kate November 14, 2015, 4:26 am

    Scenarios like this make me appreciate the fact that my situation involves three different states. My fiance’s mum and stepdad live in State A, dad and stepmum live in State B and my parents live in State C where we live.
    Last year we did Christmas in State B with his dad and stepmum, this year we’ll do State A with his mum and stepdad, and because my parents live half an hour from us we can have a pre-Christmas dinner with my side. We don’t have his son (my stepson) for Christmas but will probably have our own “Christmas dinner” with him.

    OP – I agree that the two dinners in a day is not feasible with a baby and your mother can’t be expected to cater for hordes of people for the rest of her life. Even if it is a potluck, the host is still responsible for cleaning up, serving, providing plates and cutlery, providing ‘extra’ dishes if somebody has forgotten a staple, etc. It’s stressful and I wouldn’t mind doing it once every few years, but every year would be not on. Stick with your plan and respond to Uncle and Aunt with “I’m sorry you feel that way, but this is what is happening for Thanksgiving”.

  • Cherry91 November 14, 2015, 6:58 am

    I remember being told a story years ago – Xmas, not Thanksgiving.

    A newly engaged couple went to a big family Xmas dinner, and the daughter-in-law to be tried to make a good impression on her new family by offering her assistance. Finally, she offered to do the washing up for her mother-in-law to be so she could “sit down and rest and enjoy her Christmas after all her hard work!”

    Her MIL to be promptly burst into tears. Horrified, DIL asked if she had done something wrong.

    “Not at all.” Said MIL. It was just so rare that someone showed appreciation and offered to help with doing the Xmas dinner. The rest of the family had gotten so accustomed to her doing all the work that they just came to expect it. (The family at least had the decency to be ashamed at this being pointed out, and they established a rota so MIL wasn’t always doing all the work)

    I often think Tradition is one of those words that’s meaning has become skewed. Often when people say “it’s tradition!” they actually mean “I feel I am entitled to it!”

    • Amanda H. November 14, 2015, 10:19 pm

      This is why my MIL actually sets things up so any holiday dinner at her house, people who aren’t actively cooking dinner get a choice: help with setup (place settings at the table, drinks, arranging things on the buffet line, etc.), or help with cleanup (washing dishes, clearing plates, wiping down the table, packing away leftovers). No excuses, no exceptions. Everyone agrees to it because since it’s MIL’s house (and she’s spearheading dinner itself), if you don’t help you don’t eat.

      • Green123 November 16, 2015, 9:42 am

        Absolutely right. I remember as a child on Christmas Day the sheer laziness of some guests who expected to be waited on hand and foot. Even now, 30 years later, I’m astonished at how many of my (male!) relatives got away with sitting on the sofa all morning, only moving to the table to eat dinner, then shuffled back to the sofa for the rest of the day and evening, while the womenfolk cooked, cleaned up, brought drinks etc.

        In my house, on Christmas Day, no-one does nothing. No help = no dinner. The Queen could visit for all I care, but she’d still need to help set the table!

        • JD November 16, 2015, 12:53 pm

          When I was a kid, the women in my dad’s family finally issued an ultimatum to the men who would just eat then go snooze while “watching” a game on TV as the women worked hard in the kitchen all day — if the women cooked and served it, the men had to clean up. It worked! They managed to keep this one going for several years, until the big family Thanksgivings ended after my grandfather died (my grandmother had already passed years before, so it was her daughters and daughters-in-law doing all the cooking and cleaning in my grandfather’s kitchen.) I was a young girl, but I was so impressed.

    • NostalgicGal November 15, 2015, 2:22 am

      It was around the Christmas time, about a week later, we had time off for college, I’d taken a few days to say yes, and I went to meet future DH’s family. She was of a typical (grain) farmer family wife, spent all day doing cook and wash dishes, chase laundry and maybe just maybe once a week (Saturday) get to go into town for groceries.

      Bus got in a touch later than we expected so she held dinner, she was nervous, thank everything DH to be, this wasn’t the first one to bring someone home…. the old farm dog decided he liked me so at least I got in the front door.

      Sitting in her house, been in many a similar one many a time; we finished meal and I scraped up the plates into the ice cream pail for the dog and did her dishes. How to make a good impression on my future MIL, I could think of nothing better than do her dishes. We got along famously after that.

  • Fawful November 14, 2015, 9:55 am

    I think being firm is the only way to go about this sort of thing.

    My immediate family situation’s a little different. We can’t exactly justify going out of town for an extended period of time for every holiday, and we have the situation of my side of the family being in town, while the other side of the family being spread out all over. We started things off by being firm about things: his side of the family gets us for Thanksgiving one year, while my side of the family gets us for Christmas. We swap on a yearly basis unless something weird happens, therefore no one gets left out, and we keep in contact over the rest of the year, with DH’s family occasionally coming up if they have a commitment up in our state (since DH’s dad sometimes has work commitments up here, and they still have friends here). Keeping our expectations the same no matter what makes it so no one’s disappointed.

  • Monkeysmommy November 14, 2015, 9:31 pm

    This was an issue for us too, OP. My moms mom had dinner on Wednesday night, my dads mom insisted on doing a late lunch Thursday, with my mom bringing up the rear Thursday evening while my husbands grandparents (his parents lived across the country) jockeyed for any spot in the lineup. I needed these three separate gatherings and began hosting one single dinner and inviting all parties to my home. This worked splendidly for all holidays until I moved my family to Florida- now I deal with none of this, and that isn’t bad either ;)!

  • babs November 15, 2015, 8:55 am

    Ditto to everything Admin said. As our parents get older, unfortunately family traditions will change. It sure did in my family and we were sad to see the big family gatherings come to an end, but it’s how circumstances and traditions play out, unless someone is willing to step up and take it over. Life happens. It was the mother’s wishes to host 50 people at her home. When parents no longer have the energy to do it, the one hosting the parents then decide for themselves what they are able to willing to handle. We have lost both sets of our parents, and over the years, many happy holiday traditions dwindled down as their health declined. We were forced to make our own, and I was forced to learn to cook a turkey!

    • Anonymous November 15, 2015, 5:44 pm

      Small nitpick here–learning to cook a turkey isn’t necessary for hosting a holiday dinner. I hosted a “housemates and friends Christmas” for seven people one year, when I was living in Australia. Everyone else wanted turkey, but I don’t eat meat, so we compromised and bought two frozen turkey breasts, and made a separate pan of box-mix stuffing. I cooked the turkey breasts according to the directions on the box, and seasoned them with some things I just had–olive oil and Italian seasoning on one, and olive oil, barbecue sauce, and cayenne pepper on the other. Everyone was happy with that, and there were no leftovers, so I must have done it right.

  • Anna November 15, 2015, 1:20 pm

    When Dh and I were first married, his family had on-off rule: one year we’d go to his family for Thanksgiving, the next, mine (which didn’t work since my parents lived an ocean away). It worked really well until DH’s grandma passed away about 8 years ago (she was the one to spearhead Thanksgiving dinner). After that, no one wanted to host or they had “other plans.” And, if they did decide to have dinner, they never set any definite plans until the week of (once, SIL called the night before!) Thanksgiving; it drove me nuts!

    Finally, DH and I decided that if they didn’t have anything set at least 2 weeks before the day, we had other plans (my parents had moved into town by then). You can imagine the complaints and anger the first time they called a few days before Thanksgiving, asking us to bring something, and DH politely declining. We felt bad, but we had already made plans with several cousins and my aunt and uncle who had come into town.

    Since then, we’ve made our rule known every year, and you would think the ILs would’ve learned by now, but they haven’t. In fact, we have yet to here from them for this year, and when we called both MIL and SIL, they were like, “We’ll probably have something; don’t know what time yet.” Sheesh!

  • Girlie November 16, 2015, 9:06 am

    I totally agree with the freeloaders idea. We have this one family that joins us EVERY year (not related) for Thanksgiving AND Christmas and the past couple years my family (and extended) has stopped inviting them. They have never reciprocated or invited us to their home. We’ve been keeping it just immediate family and first cousins (which is still pretty big) and the kids from the freeloader family will text kids in our family with a “i wish we were spending xxx together this year :(” It’s so awkward, but when does the freeloading stop?

    • Goldie November 17, 2015, 9:34 am

      How large is the freeloaders’ home, though? We hosted a lot when we lived in a 2400+ sq ft house with a fully finished basement (which adds another 1000 sq ft or so.) Right now, I live in a 1200 sq ft house and most of that footage is bedrooms. (the kids each wanted a room they could actually live in, so all houses with decent sized entertaining space and 8×8 bedrooms were ruled out by us.) The living room is pretty tiny. My friends, that I used to invite over and that used to invite me over, mostly live in 5000 sq ft homes. There’s no way I can fit them into mine, and provide the level of entertainment they’re used to. I invited seven people once (used to have 20-25 people over, plus kids, back at the old place) and the 9 of us could not fit inside my home. It was a nice summer day so we ended up setting up a table outside. Could it be the same thing with the freeloader family? and if so, would you and your group even want to spend Thanksgiving and Christmas being crammed into their tiny living space just so the score is even? Maybe they could contribute in other ways?

      • acr November 18, 2015, 4:14 pm

        Even if guests contribute, the bulk of the work and expense falls on the hosts. If the relationship is close enough for freeloader family to spend the two major winter holidays, then freeloader family should be doing their share of hosting/entertaining. Maybe you are right – they live in a small house. So rent a pavilion at a local park and have a spring, summer or fall party. Or invite the hosts out to dinner sometime. An invitation isn’t guaranteed into perpetuity, and when invitations dry up, it behooves the no-longer-invited to consider why.

  • Lady Anne November 16, 2015, 2:35 pm

    Eldest daughter married into a large family – son-in-law is one of six children. For a while, they held Thanksgiving at mother-in-law’s home but as kids grew up and married the entire thing got to the point that they finally started renting a local church hall, and everybody brought something.
    Even at that, attrition took its toll. Some of the kids married and moved out of state, others wanted to spend time with their spouse’s families. Finally, after much weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth, it was decided that each “child” would spend Thanksgiving Day as they pleased, and then they all got together in the evening for a major dessert blow-out in the church hall.
    And then they all waddled home.

  • S. November 16, 2015, 9:33 pm

    I’ve been through almost this exact same thing. My parents hosted family holidays for years, then we downsized to a smaller house and ultimately had to make some changes, and people (who had never so much as entertained the idea of hosting) were quite offended. Worth the drama in the end to have more intimate, modest holidays imo. (One year, in what may have been a strange act of resentment, someone sneakily took their host gift of wine back with them when they left. We laughed about it all evening when everyone was gone.)

  • Sadie October 24, 2016, 11:42 am

    I’m married to a man who has a huge family. For years, they all went to his aunt’s house where there was room to eat, hang outside or whatever. Now the elderly have passed on or are passing on and it appears that my husband I are going to be thee hosts. My husband loves these get togethers, but I’m not a natural entertainer and don’t. I’m talking 20-30 people will come and that number is growing with every grandchild that pops out and every significant other that comes along. I resent being the ones who have the biggest house and a SIL who’s made it clear that she lives a little over an hour away and has no interest in hosting anything! Her/their house is plenty big. To boot, she’s a lazy slob (and her daughters, too) who sit(s) and watch everyone else that I have to employ for help, help clean up, etc. We don’t have to make all the food, but we do have to decorate, entertain and do the final cleanup. I dread the holidays now. I’m trying not to be self-centered, but I resent being expected to be the hosts (hubby doesn’t) and I resent that my SIL and her daughters don’t lift a hand to help clean or offer up their place for the dinner(s). And finally, I just don’t get into entertaining at a large scale. How can I convince my husband to insist that his brother (SIL’s husband) take on some of the entertaining? Hubby has other siblings but their houses couldn’t hold everyone. I just wish the holidays away.