On Thanksgiving, more than any other big annual occasion, I worry that I’m at risk for Empty Celebration Syndrome—you know, ECS, that feeling you get when you go to a wedding or a party, and even though the menu is perfect, the guest list is well considered, and the festivities take place around tables that are festooned with flowers, you just can’t shake the feeling that something is . . . missing?
The emptiness of Thanksgiving can settle in after you spend a week or two exchanging emails with your siblings and parents about schedules and driving and shopping and coordinating. Then on the Day Of, it’s like you’re trapped in some kind of kitchen version of Mario Kart, trying to get to the finish line, even as culinary missiles fly at you from all sides. You expend all that energy—emotional and physical—finally making it to the table unscathed, and then you, what, eat?
An hour later, there won’t be a whole lot to show for what went into the feast beyond the untouched pile of Brussels sprouts on your toddler’s (or your uncle’s) plate and the stack of Tupperwared leftovers. (Not that I’m in any way dismissing those Tupperwared leftovers.) So the fridge is packed full of leftovers, but you feel empty, like you never had a real moment to give thanks on Thanksgiving.
Obviously there’s not a whole lot you can do in terms of getting the high-energy toddlers to grasp the concept of sitting down, let alone the concept of gratitude. But for the rest of us, there are a few things we can do that help alleviate at least some of the symptoms of ECS. You probably don’t need me to tell you that it’s never a bad idea to simply go around the table and ask all present to announce one thing they are thankful for. If this is what you do, no need to read any farther. It doesn’t get purer or more effective than that. But if you are in the market for new ways to impart meaning to family occasions, one place to start is to take notes.
I like to think that the reason why Thanksgiving doesn’t completely spiral into chaos in our house is because of my mother’s post-feast recording ritual. Every year, on the morning after Thanksgiving, she grabs a legal pad and starts taking detailed post-feast notes in perfect cursive: Date, menu, number and names of attendees, temperature, who cooked what, who bought what and from where, what she needs more of next year, what she needs less of, what worked, what didn’t. What makes her system awesome is not just that it reminds us that a 16.3-pound turkey provided more than enough for the thirteen of us in 2013, or that the sweet potato casserole that same year was “a hit.” She takes the time to note that my then nine-year-old niece requested fewer pecans in the casserole next time around and that my then eleven-year-old niece was the one spearheading the new cranberry recipe with me, sectioning the oranges and chopping the mint. In that way, it’s more like a diary than anything else.
Of course, I look to the notes to see how I can improve my own performance next year, too. I was pleased to see I had done a couple things right in 2011: I provided “superb” homemade stock for the gravy and my buttermilk pie was “a winner.” But it’s not all gold stars. In the mashed potatoes department—my department—she always notes “too much.” (Personally, I don’t think this is possible.) In 2009, the stuffing was “not moist enough,” but at least Mom was nice enough to blame Martha Stewart, instead of the person who executed Martha Stewart’s recipe. Sometimes, much to our delight, she forgets that other people besides her are reading these notes, as was the case when I discovered a crushing “B-” next to my husband Andy’s 2008 homemade bourbon pecan pie. Needless to say, she was mortified, but he was thrilled to have something to lord over her for every Thanksgiving thereafter. (He also upped his pie game considerably, eventually earning his pie “keeper” status.)
The takeaway here is not only that there is a blueprint for next year, but that there is a written record to immortalize each Thanksgiving and connect it to Thanksgivings past and future. For that effort, even Andy would admit she’s earned an A+.
This story was adapted from Jenny's new book, How to Celebrate Everything.