Thanksgiving was not always my favorite holiday.
Growing up, I thought Thanksgiving was about radishes cut like roses and juice glasses rimmed in confectioner sugar. It was a high-tension affair so full of aesthetic requirements we could barely see the pumpkin pie at the end of the tunnel – which is a shame because my mom does indeed make the world’s best pumpkin pie.
After three decades of tense perfection, I married into a family who ran a soup-kitchen style Thanksgiving.
Nothing was decanted into serving dishes and brought to a linen, crystal and silver bedecked table (did I mention there were only four of us, growing up?). Dishes were served up in my mother-in-law’s kitchen and guests – as many as felt like coming – found a seat on the couch.
Everyone wore stretchy pants instead of Sunday finery.
For years I thrived in the soup kitchen of my new family. And then one day I began to crave the dignity of my own family traditions.
What I had seen as empty and tension-fraught displays were actually beautiful expressions of gratitude.
Thanksgiving affords an opportunity to take the process of preparing, serving and eating out of the commonplace. On Thanksgiving we treat our guests to the best we have.
When we garnish a plate, we don’t do it to be better or fancier or to make more work for ourselves – we do it as a gesture of love and respect. It is an offering. When’s the last time you saw a Styrofoam take-out container at an altar?
When I say we give the best of what we have, I do not mean crystal glasses and silver serving dishes (although if you have them, this is the time).
My mother-in-law opened her home to everyone she knew. Her best was a generous heart and a large collection of forks.
When we iron our impossibly long linen table cloths and polish our impossibly black silver candlesticks, we do it in the spirit of gratitude, not tedious obligation. The process of preparation is like a prayer – in which radish rosettes are rosary beads.
When ritual loses its fundamental meaning and becomes a series of things we do, the prayer part goes missing, taking the blessing with it.
“Thanksgiving” is an in-and-out kind of word. It inhales thanks and exhales giving. It can’t only do one, or it will pass out in the turnips.
Here’s my secret recipe for Thanksgiving: I invite no one who is likely to judge me.
If my napkins are not perfectly pressed, my guests are not apt to care. I invite my family because I love them, and I invite friends because I love them too. If friends are away from family or have no tradition of their own, they have a place at my table.
I shine up the best of what I have, make my favorite recipes and lay it all out like an offering.
Thanksgiving is every day. On this one Thursday, however, we pull out all the stops. We give thanks for what we have and honor the people in our lives. It is not an obligation, it is a gift. And we do it with joy in our hearts and, in a perfect world, mom’s pumpkin pie in our bellies.
May your Thanksgiving be blessed. May your table be full. May your heart be satisfied.
This column originally appeared in The Magazine of Yoga