Thanksgiving's Enclosing Circle

EVERY Thanksgiving, the houses on our street can be divided into two groups: the empty driveways and the full driveways.

The empty driveways offer several possible scenarios: The owners might be spending the day quietly at home. Or they might be joining family and friends as guests in someone else's home or as customers in restaurants, where an estimated 10 percent of Americans will eat Thanksgiving dinner.

The full driveways tell another story, testifying to the enduring ties that bind the American family. These are the houses that, on this one day at least, are bursting with several generations of extended families. The family circle might change slightly from one November to the next - adding a place at the table for a new son-in-law, perhaps, or subtracting one for a recent graduate now working in another city.

But whatever the minor variations, these family members come back again and again, like swallows returning to a suburban Capistrano.

Shortly after noon, the first cars arrive. Wives carry mince pies and casserole dishes. Husbands tote babies and toddlers and sometimes extra chairs. Teenagers, looking slightly uncomfortable in dress-up attire, bear Walkmans and Frisbees. A neighbor observing the scene can only guess at the particular holiday memories and expectations that each relative also carries into the house.

For all the brave talk about ``alternative life styles'' and ``new family forms,'' for all the mobility and dispersal of late-20th-century families, Thanksgiving still exerts a powerful hold. Norman Rockwell got it right when he immortalized three generations of Americans gathering around a Thanksgiving table for a turkey dinner in his now-famous 1943 poster. In a different context, so did Tevye in ``Fiddler on the Roof'' when he stamped his foot and sang of ``Tradition!''

Ah, tradition. What Thanksgiving host worthy of the role would even think of not serving the turkey dressing that Grandmother always made or the favorite family recipe for sweet potatoes topped with tiny marshmallows? So powerful a hold do these dishes exert that some traditionalists carry them far beyond their own family circle.

Twice in years past, our holiday group included a friend for whom no Thanksgiving dinner was complete without sauerkraut, a tradition dating back to her childhood in Missouri. The others seated around the table groaned in mock disgust. But they also understood the appeal of her cherished memories and made a show of bravely adding a dollop of sauerkraut to their plates.

Inevitably, traditions do change, of course. In Boston, time-short hosts and hostesses can now dial an 800-number at the Star Market to order a complete dinner for eight for $29.99. The cranberry relish and pumpkin pie won't be Grandma's, but at least the feet under the table will probably be familiar.

In the days leading up to Thanksgiving, as shoppers with long lists crowd supermarkets and florist shops and as far-flung family members jam airports and train stations, a question arises: Is any single meal worth this much effort and expense? Silly question. Every occasion for bringing the family together for whatever reason is cause for rejoicing.

From old traditional families to new blended families, the sight of generation upon generation sitting around a table must also silence, at least for a day, the tiresome doomsayers forever predicting the family's imminent demise.There is something incorruptible about Thanksgiving, as holidays go.

No amount of cookery madness and feeding frenzy can quite conceal the final intent to nurture relationships rather than stomachs. No blitz of football games can quite distract from the primal gratitude a feaster must feel at being provided for, one more year. And finally, nothing in the way of noisy gusto can confuse what Thanksgiving is celebrating in the end - the enduring circle of community and the circle within that circle, the family.

For the homeless, gathered in a church basement, this holds as true as for the nuclear family. In fact, strangers collected together at Thanksgiving form a family and testify to the strength of the family as an ideal, whatever its problems in practice.

What a strange, contradictory mix Thanksgiving makes of the sacred and the secular! Yet, like the suet and raisins in mincemeat, the combination works surprisingly well. So, for one more time, please pass the turkey, the tradition, and maybe even the sauerkraut.

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