The turkey sat in the oven. A card table was pushed against the dining room table to make room for all the invitees. The host puttered in the kitchen, shooing out unwanted help.
It had all the premeal buzz of a typical family Thanksgiving, except that the 20 or so guests were not related. The 20-somethings who gathered in Washington, D.C., last Saturday were friends, holding their third annual Thanksgiving together.
"There was the typical Thanksgiving-type stuff: turkey, mashed potatoes, the giving of thanks around the table," says Brian Harding, who hosted the celebration. "It's like my family Thanksgiving, but fun" of a different sort.
Increasingly, America's young adults appear to be spending traditional family holidays with friends rather than – or in addition to – their relatives. Chalk it up to the high cost of travel or the increasing time young people spend on their own between the end of college and marriage. For whatever reason, people in their 20s appear to be blurring the distinction between family bonding and friendship.
"It's too early for this to show up as a verifiable trend in census data, but it's absolutely clear that with the extended rise of education and delay of marriage it is something that is occurring more than just anecdotally," says Stephanie Coontz, a professor of history and family studies at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash.
Last year, 8 percent of Americans shared their Thanksgiving feast with friends, according to a survey by Rasmussen Reports, an electronic public-opinion publishing firm.
When young professionals are still single, friendship networks and support systems are more important than they used to be, Professor Coontz adds. According to census reports, it's now common for men and women to spend more than 15 years of their adulthood unmarried, whereas a few decades ago, spending more than five years out of the house unmarried was rare.
The first year that Kristen Rogers held Thanksgiving was in her tiny New York City apartment for her fellow Teach for America volunteers. The oven was so small she had to prepare individual turkey breasts and cook them one at a time. But that didn't matter.
"It was so much fun," she says. "It was a totally different holiday as opposed to spending it at home."
What started as a substitute family holiday for teachers who couldn't afford to fly across the country to spend the day with their own families has become a tradition. This year, even though Ms. Rogers now attends law school in Boston, her friends are making the four-hour bus trip to spend the holiday with her.
"I definitely consider them family," Rogers says. "I think the definition is really expanding for kids my age.... I think it varies with people, but with these girls from NYC, we've been through a lot for each other and we've had to really support each other."
Distance is a large reason for the trend as young people start working far from home and have limited resources to travel back for every holiday, says Ethan Watters, author of "Urban Tribes," a 2003 survey of how those in their 20s and 30s are building close-knit tribes similar to families. "It's very clear to me that there's nothing mutually exclusive about the love and social network that you get from friends [compared with] that of family. They're not in opposition."
The trend began to gather steam in the late 1970s with women going to college and then choosing to pursue a career, says Mr. Watters. "It's always been a cultural norm for men to spend time away from the nuclear family, but once women got into it, the marriage delay really took off."
Not all 20-somethings are blurring family ties with friendship, cautions Melanie Wallendorf, a professor of marketing at the University of Arizona in Tucson. All families are different and the delay of marriage is only true of upper- and middle-class children, she says.
The move to define family in a more open way doesn't mean young people are necessarily less close to their family, says Erica Chito Childs, a family sociologist at Hunter College in New York. But the high rates of divorce and subsequent blended families means that 20-somethings have less strict guidelines on what family means and who it includes, she adds.
These social bonding skills bode well for family, though, say some family researchers. This is a chance for these young adults to practice caring about and being cared for by others, says Coontz.
Nathaniel Brown, a graduate student at Tufts University near Boston, has already held a pre-Thanksgiving.
"We did it last year essentially because we had a free turkey on hand and we always were looking for an excuse to throw a fun party," he says. "I think the impetus to have it again this year was that it was so much fun last year, and maybe because we unintentionally filled some void by celebrating this great but traditional family holiday with friends instead."
As more and more young people organize holiday rituals with their friends, it may lead them to redefine holidays as less family-based and defined more by friendship and community, says Kay Trimberger, author and women's studies researcher at the University of California at Berkeley.
Back in Washington, Mr. Harding's early Thanksgiving started at a traditional time but lasted until 3 a.m. And while he enjoys his regular family Thanksgiving, he says the outdoor dizzy-bat competition – a race that involves spinning around a baseball bat – was not something he would see at his parents' house.
For Harding, unmarried and a researcher at a Washington think tank, the impetus for the Thanksgiving dinner was the weekly sit-down meal he had with roommates in graduate school. Now it has evolved into an annual gathering that serves as a way to bring together his close network of friends, who are scattered throughout metro Washington.
Though the celebration is the only Thanksgiving event some of his friends will attend, others, including Harding, plan also to head off to see their families Thursday.