Creating Our Own Traditions

For many years I celebrated Thanksgiving at a friend’s rustic cabin in Jenner, on California’s stunning North Coast. 

There is no electricity in this two-story cabin my friend built, and no cell service, but the big room where four friends gather to sauté mushrooms for a gravy on the propane stove and put trays of fresh sage–dusted potatoes and savory casseroles into the oven is well lit by natural light.

Following a late-afternoon walk in the surrounding woods while our meal stays warm in the oven and fills the cabin with delicious aromas, we hang our coats and scarves and decorate the table with found treasures from the walk: colorful leaves and acorns, sprigs of pine. One of us lights tall candles in two hanging black wrought iron chandeliers and fills our glasses with a good local Zinfandel. The sun is setting as we sit down to say a few words about what we’re thankful for—including each other and this time together—and enjoy the feast we’ve prepared. After dinner we lounge on the couch and in the rocking chair to play music and laugh over favorite games by the warmth of the wood-burning stove. Not a bad way to enjoy Thanksgiving in the 21st century.

A century ago, in Napoleon, Ohio, eleven-year-old Julia Murray had a Thanksgiving day she described in her story in my book Girlhood in America: Personal Stories 1910 – 2010 (“Tomboy”, Chapter 2, The 1920s).  When autumn cooled the summer heat and cornfields lay fallow, maple and sassafras trees, oak hickories and chestnut oaks put on a vibrant show before shedding their leaves. Julia’s favorite holiday was on its way.

Thanksgiving Day started with a ride in the Model T for a cold fifteen-mile drive up a gravel road to her uncle Walter and aunt Afton’s farm. On the way, a few cars and a couple of farm wagons passed, the horses throwing back their heads, wild-eyed over  the sound of the car motor. They passed weathered unpainted farmhouses, faded red barns, and orchards filled with bare trees.

Her aunt and uncle’s farmhouse was full and lively when Julia’s family arrived, with relatives in from all around. Her aunt pulled a twenty-pound golden-roasted turkey out of the wood stove and in a large bowl mashed potatoes with freshly churned butter and fresh milk. After a feast that included all sorts of foods relatives brought—sunshine gelatin, vegetable dishes, cranberry sauce, and pies and cakes—the women cleaned up and chatted while the men gathered outside to visit and smoke before feeding the farm animals and tending them for the night. She never wanted the day to end.

What was your Thanksgiving day like when you were growing up? What parts of it do you enjoy at your Thanksgiving table today? Are there traditions you’ve added? My twenty-one-year-old niece has a new name for the holiday, one that makes sense for her. She calls it Friendsgiving.

However you enjoy it this year, I hope you have the feeling you’d like the day to never end.