In Praise of the Small Thanksgiving

I used to wish for more guests at my holiday dinner. Now I know better.

Small Thanksgiving dinner.
At smaller Thanksgivings, the selection is less extensive but carefully tailored to quirky palates

Photograph by Wavebreak Media/Thinkstock Images.

When I was a kid, I told strangers that I had a younger sister. (I’m an only child.) I also lied about my Thanksgiving.

I knew from holiday movies and the kids I met on the playground that Thanksgiving was supposed to be a massive and boisterous family affair. The week before the holiday, classmates with siblings or cousins too numerous to count would complain about family visiting from out of town. “I have to sleep on the couch!” they would say. Seven days out, they had already started to prepare the feast.

My Thanksgiving, meanwhile, required no such sacrifice or preparation: I’m not just the only child, but also the only grandchild. Our celebration never expanded past eight people. Over the years, death has thinned that number to about five.

I worried that my hair (voluminous and curly), my religion (Jewish), and the contents of my lunchbox (deviled eggs) already branded me as a weirdo. I was sure my intimate Thanksgiving would, too. Yes, my small family loved me with the strength of 10 large ones, but I often felt lonely without siblings or first cousins nearby. A bustling Thanksgiving—and a big family—was what I saw on TV and heard about from friends. I wanted it more than anything. If the other kids knew my family only needed three Thanksgiving pies—and couldn’t even finish those—I was sure I’d be pitied. Or shunned.

So I embellished. I recall telling classmates that we were expecting about 20 people. My mom began setting the table two weeks ago, I would say. Of course we’re renting tables and chairs. My dad could barely lift the massive turkey, which feeds at least 20. I probably can’t hang out Tuesday night, either, because I’ll be too busy mashing potatoes and peeling apples.

As I grew older, I came clean about the modest size of our gathering. But I still couldn’t shake the feeling that the smallness of my celebration somehow diminished it.

That changed when I was a junior in college. My great uncle, who wasn’t one of our normal Thanksgiving guests, invited my immediate and extended family to Thanksgiving dinner at a fancy Chicago hotel. My mom didn’t feel like cooking that year, and my aunt wanted to test the hotel’s mashed potatoes. We accepted the invitation. For the first time, I would get my big Thanksgiving. Thirty people would attend.

I discovered the first downside before we made it to dinner: I had to dress up (ugh). My black dress and suede high heels made me yearn for the fleece-lined brown slippers I usually wore. I spent the first hour nursing a Diet Coke, noshing on appetizers, and grasping for small talk with second cousins I rarely saw. “How’s school?” they would ask. “Got an internship for the summer yet? What will you do when you graduate?”

I ricocheted among family members. The interrogations seemed endless. There were never any banal questions at previous Thanksgivings because everyone there already knew the answers. This big dinner felt like a performance. I wished I were perched on a couch in my living room with my grandma, sipping the sparkling cider my aunt brought each year as an alcohol substitute for the under-21 crowd (which consisted entirely of me).

Finally, we approached the buffet. In addition to traditional fare such as turkey, stuffing, and mashed potatoes, there was smoked salmon and caviar, sushi, and at least 15 different cheeses. None of it was any good: The turkey was dry and rubbery. The mashed potatoes were tepid. (They weren’t part of the buffet but had to be ordered separately. My aunt was indignant.) Worst of all, I couldn’t eat my favorite dessert, apple pie, because it had nuts and I’m allergic to them.

At the smaller Thanksgivings at my house, the selection was less extensive but carefully tailored to our quirky palates. I made garlic mashed potatoes (extra garlic for my aunt) and apple pie (less sugar for my mom). My aunt brought her stuffing (which she always worries is too moist). My mom contributed the turkey (which she always worries is too dry), a vegetable, and the sour cranberry sauce. My grandma brings a tart cherry pie for my father. There were always plenty of leftovers.

There were no leftovers at the hotel. We dined at several large tables in a cavernous banquet hall. I squeezed between the second cousins at the kids table, waving to my parents a few tables over. I missed setting our small dining room table with the tiny seasonal gourds my mom keeps in a drawer in the basement. I missed pulling the homemade apple pie from our oven. I missed lounging in the living room as the aroma of Thanksgiving drifted through our little home.

The following year, we had Thanksgiving at our house again. My grandpa had died the previous spring, so the group was even smaller. But now I knew that was OK—better than OK, even. I was thankful that I had finally figured that out.