Editor’s Note: Diana Butler Bass (@dianabutlerbass) holds a Ph.D. in religious studies from Duke University and is the author of 10 books on American religion and culture, including “Grateful: The Transformative Power of Giving Thanks” (HarperOne 2018). The views expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.
Holidays often provoke stress, especially in families strained by emotional tensions, economic challenges, or grief. After the 2016 election, however, that stress metastasized into a full-on cultural disorder: American Thanksgiving Anxiety.
Although I’m pretty sure I’m the first to name it, there is real evidence of such a disorder. Social scientists Keith Chen and Ryne Rohla discovered that Americans significantly shortened Thanksgiving dinners in recent years, especially when spending the holiday with relatives of the opposite political party. Democrats celebrating Thanksgiving in Republican areas spent 20-40 minutes less time over the meal; Republicans visiting Democratic relations reduced holiday visits by 50-70 minutes.
Thanksgiving has become polarized. We only want to feast with our own tribe.
In the last year while speaking about my book “Grateful,” I’ve had conversations across the country about gratefulness, especially about the power of giving thanks to renew a divided country. “We can celebrate together,” I remind listeners, “food, the bounty of the earth, the gifts of life and work, the pleasure of relationships … and the call to serve others as we have been served.”
Audiences cheer this vision. After each speech, however, at least one person has stood up, launched into a tale of a relative ruining Thanksgiving by pontificating on politics, and asked: “What can I do about Thanksgiving dinner?”
With this question, dozens nod their heads in recognition, clearly worried about their own divided families at Thanksgiving.
This worried the researchers. “Some people don’t see losing dinner with relatives as a particularly large cost,” commented Rohla. “I’ve talked to people who are, ‘Well, so what?’ Personally I think it is concerning. To me it’s a symptom of a broader decline in the social fabric of the United States.”
So, what can we do about Thanksgiving dinner?
First, if it is too hard to spend Thanksgiving with your MAGA-cap-wearing uncle or your sister in her “She Persisted” T-shirt, don’t. But if you opt out, be sure you don’t mope at home over a frozen meal watching football. Instead, volunteer. Serve dinner at a homeless shelter. Attend a religious service. Visit a cancer ward or a senior center. Invite international students to your house and make them a Thanksgiving meal. Do something on Thanksgiving that strengthens ties between people, even if it is hard to do with your own relatives. Reaching out to strangers can be the first step toward reaching out again to your own kin.
Second, if you must spend the holiday with a politically divided family, you can do some things to lessen anxiety, whether you are the host or a guest.
If you are the host, much of what happens at the dinner depends on what you do to make your guests – all your guests – feel safe and valued. Don’t assume people will get along. Even if they don’t fight about Donald Trump, they may well fight about other things that used to be less controversial – like football or the weather. Be proactive about potential conflicts. Provide “Rules for a Nonpartisan Thanksgiving” at each seat. Make them funny: no throwing food; no fights over dark or light meat or jellied versus whole-berry cranberry sauce; no flipping between FOX and MSNBC during dinner.
Hosts can also encourage meaningful talk in ways that respect others. Have guests write down what they are grateful for, put the slips in a jar, and then have people draw papers and read the thanks of others out loud. Offer a “menu” of conversation starters. Ask each person to share a memory of a favorite Thanksgiving. Good memories remind people of meaningful family moments and may put present tensions in a broader context.
If you are brave, have your guests address politics directly. Ask those gathered when they’ve last had a meal with someone of a different political party or felt truly grateful for different opinions and perspectives. If you are a Republican, have a story ready from your own life about what you appreciate and what you’ve learned from your Democratic relatives (and the opposite for those of you who are Democrats).
If you are a guest, remember that you are responsible for your own behavior. If you have a good relationship with the host, call in advance and let him or her know you are feeling anxious about the visit. Ask your mother to say something to Uncle Joe before dinner – to go easy on politics, to keep the conversation away from divisive topics, to remember that kindness is an important part of being family. Prepare strategies for maintaining your cool. Have a “text-a-friend” ready. Use bathroom breaks tactically. Deflect controversy with jokes. Take a long walk after dinner. Put your therapist on speed-dial. Bring the greatest dessert ever as a gift; if you contribute good food, it is harder for people to get mad at you. If you decide to engage a political concern, do so with both facts and humor.
Above all, have appropriate expectations. You aren’t going to convert anybody over Thanksgiving dinner, but you might start a new conversation with an estranged relative that could continue into the future.
Thanksgiving is the only holiday Americans have specifically to celebrate gratitude, to recognize the bounties of creation and community upon which we all depend. And, as with so many other aspects of American society right now, we have work to do. The table needs to be reset. This Thanksgiving, remember that our lives are a gift, that all we have and all that sustains us are gifts, and that we can choose – even around the most awkward holiday table – to be thankful with and for each other.