Contentment with small things

A scaled-down Thanksgiving, whether by choice or circumstance, can be just as warm and appealing as a big feast.

It's ingrained in the minds of so many Americans - that Norman Rockwell image of Grandmother placing a glowing brown turkey on a white table, surounded by smiling faces huddling as if listening to some family tale.

For many Americans, Thanksgiving is a time for renewing bonds with extended family and friends, and for bountiful tables. But what about people who can't take part in such a large festivity?

Whether it's parents whose children live far away, or singles who choose to spend the holiday with friends, or people who want to simplify this annual tradition, many are finding they can have all the meaning of Thanksgiving around a smaller table.

For Alice Shobe, a wife and mother of two young children, the beauty of the day is precisely in its simplicity. No football. No shopping. No pressure. Just good friends and food.

"I like the feeling of sitting at the table, and feeling calm, and having nice conversation with people that I'm really happy to be there with," says Ms. Shobe, deputy director of a Seattle nonprofit organization.

Shobe and her husband, Eric Svarens, usually spend Christmas with his parents in Portland, Ore. And her parents live in Michigan - too far to travel on the busiest holiday of the year. So, to their delight, that leaves Thanksgiving as the one holiday they can spend exactly as they please, and that's with their children, 11 months and four years old, and a few close friends.

For her husband, an organizational consultant, this kind of celebration is a relief from pressured family gatherings.

"We've said, 'Let's make this something that works for us,' " Mr. Svarens explains. "The only tradition so far is, Alice makes this incredible cranberry sauce. But other traditions are not fully developed yet."

Defining and observing traditions is important to Hepsie and Ron Davis's Thanksgiving celebrations. In 35 years of marriage, they have lived in several US states, Geneva, and Hong Kong, following Ron's postings as a corporate lawyer. While they were raising two daughters, they rarely lived near relatives. Now they are retired and live in Flat Rock, N.C.

Observing family rituals "was a very conscious effort because of our children," says Mrs. Davis. "We wanted to establish our own family traditions, to develop our own strong family bond. Even if it's just Ron and I, we try to maintain family traditions."

For the Davises, Thanksgiving Day starts with a leisurely breakfast. For dinner, it's the traditional turkey with the highlights: "steamed oysters, fried oysters, oyster stuffing. Always oysters," Mrs. Davis says. "This is oyster season in North Carolina," where she grew up.

"I think Thanksgiving is a state of mind," she says. "It's not the event, it's what the event symbolizes. And you can have that by yourself or with two people."

Judith Reiffel spent 20 years living and working in Berlin, long after her sons had grown up. After 20 years without Thanksgiving, and always being the guest at Christmas, Ms. Reiffel was primed for celebrations when she retired to the Jamaica Plain neighborhood of Boston.

"The first thing I did when I got back here was to have parties," she says. Most Thanksgivings have been at her apartment, with one of her sons and a couple of his friends.

But with a tight budget and no car, Reiffel has learned to pare the food down to the necessities. She starts weeks in advance buying food items - one at a time, in addition to her regular shopping. "Suddenly you have everything," she says. To keep expenses down, she cuts out certain foods such as relishes and olives, which "no one will ever miss." When her guests are too few to consume a whole bird, she buys cuts of turkey and roasts them with all the trimmings.

"You have to scale down when you get older," she explains. "Which doesn't make it worse - it's a relief."

Laurel Ross, an elementary music teacher from Eugene, Ore., says her most memorable Thanksgivings were spent with a few close friends who gathered almost every year for 10 years.

The celebrations were far from traditional. Two of her friends are vegetarians, she laughs, and the staunchest one insisted on carving the turkey.

"We didn't have any real rituals around it," Ms. Ross says. "But we looked forward to it. We always worked together, so it wasn't heaped on one person."

Janet Luhrs, author of "The Simple Living Guide" (Broadway Books, 1997), says simplifying holiday plans is easy to do without diminishing the festive atmosphere. The most important thing is to talk with the guests, and decide as a group what is most important to everyone.

"At that meeting, create an umbrella of values," she suggests. "Say, 'What is really meaningful here?' If it's to have time with your children or family, then you can question why you are running around to find the perfect decoration for your office party."

To bring intimacy to a celebration, even when it's with people you may not know well, Ms. Luhrs says, ask people to write down meaningful quotes, put them in a bowl, and take turns around the table reading them.

For those spending the day alone, Vicki Robin, co-author of "Your Money or Your Life" (Penguin, 1999), suggests writing a letter to someone who has been a blessing in your life. "That way you get to experience the richness of that person." she says.

Ms. Robin suggests that, no matter how simple the celebration, the most important thing is to list all the things you appreciate in your life. "Every time you name something that you have and appreciate, your experience of 'wealth' increases," she says. "The more we step into the space of gratitude, the harder it is to remain an unconscious consumer."

Ms. Shobe says the holiday is important for her family.

"I feel a strong desire to use Thanksgiving as a special time to teach - but also to demonstrate for my children - conscious acts of being grateful," she says. "I've adopted Thanksgiving for that purpose."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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