Friendsgiving: A New Tradition

Joy is gathering with friends around the table



Jeff Amberg

As a holiday, Thanksgiving is special. This quintessential American holiday centers on giving thanks and sharing time with loved ones. It also includes a meal many people look forward to all year long. Most Americans can name their standard favorite dishes, from rice and gravy to sweet potato pie, and there are as many food traditions as there are families. In fact, some love Thanksgiving so much that one day — and one meal — just isn’t enough.

On the first Friendsgiving, many years ago (at least, in millennial years), a group of convivial friends gathered around a turkey. They weren’t related to each other by blood or marriage, the napkins were neither starched nor ironed, and no one had been wrestled into “that lovely sweater Grandma gave you last Christmas.” They laughed, they talked, they raised their glasses, and everyone helped with the dishes when it was all over. There were no longstanding traditions to uphold, no complicated seating charts carefully designed to prevent political arguments, and in fact, no one really knew it was coming. It likely started when someone decided to feature a menu full of traditional Thanksgiving food, prepared and served by friends, but it wouldn’t be on Thanksgiving.

No one knows the true origins of what has evolved culturally into Friendsgiving, though some people credit it to the television show Friends, which featured the titular group of 20-somethings celebrating Thanksgiving together every year. Whether it arose from the show or not, Friendsgiving is an increasingly popular tradition for young professionals. For many celebrants, the dinner is a low-key alternative to their own family’s more formal Thanksgiving; for others, it’s the perfect excuse to use the good china, adorn the table with autumn foliage, and pull out the crystal punch bowl. Friendsgiving is whatever the host and guests want it to be, whether it’s a traditional dinner with all the trimmings or a backyard barbecue with a deep-fried turkey as the main course, with or without cranberry sauce.

 

 

 

 

For those who live too far from their own families to make it home for both Thanksgiving and Christmas, it is a wonderful way to still celebrate the holiday with those they love. As the newest generation of professionals live farther from home to follow their dream jobs, and as work schedules become increasingly rigid, it can be difficult for families to all be in the same place for major holidays. Friendsgiving can be a way to celebrate when going home isn’t feasible. The price of a plane ticket shouldn’t stop anyone from enjoying turkey, oyster dressing, pumpkin pie, and other favorites. Gathering together and eating until every guest is stuffed is a grand American tradition, and, though a turkey is usually included, no one expects that the dressing will be made exactly like it has been for the past three generations. Because of its relative youth, Friendsgiving is ripe for the creation of new traditions.

Though a gracious home is a welcoming setting, Friendsgiving can happen anywhere. It can even take place in the back room of a Mexican restaurant. Lane Chappell and Mark, her husband, have been part of a joyous Friendsgiving with their regular tailgating group for at least five years. Just like any fun event, word gets out, and Lane’s gathering has grown. Traditions are important, and space can be at a premium, but friends come first.

“We have grown from 10 people to about 30 at our last event. We were pushed for time and space and had to reserve the back room at Casa Linda for this past year’s event, but we weren’t going to miss a year!” she shares.

Turkey may not have made the menu that year unless the restaurant happened to be offering a turkey fajita special, but the people made all the difference. This gathering happens with or without the bird. Friendsgiving starts — and ends — with friends.

Lyndey Zwing is also part of this “tailgate group” and says that they are like family. They also spend the occasional weekend together at the lake and celebrate other events. “Friendsgiving is such a fun way to celebrate all of our blessings, including engagements, marriages, new babies, and more,” says Lyndey.

It can also be a way to make new friends since Friendsgiving offers hosts an opportunity to introduce people from different groups. A host’s favorite co-worker might end up seated next to his sister-in-law’s cousin. A new neighbor can hit it off with a former college roommate. Friendsgiving is about celebrating existing connections and making new ones.

Friendsgiving may not be as rigid as some family holidays, but the hosts are still heroes. In many groups, they prepare the turkey and provide the space and place settings, and guests bring a variety of dishes, sides, and desserts. But not every host wants everyone to bring a dish. Some just want a little help in the kitchen.

“The food aspect is about sharing an experience and putting together something that everyone will love,” says host Ryan Hyler. “I don’t ask others to bring anything because that can put added pressure on those coming and take away from the overall night. I’ll ask a friend or two to come over for the afternoon to help cook, rather than have folks rushing around to make a casserole no one really wants to eat.” 

Just like your grandmother — or great aunt or older cousin — Ryan is in charge, but he appreciates a little help in the kitchen. And being asked to help isn’t a burden; on the contrary, it’s an honor because a good host always chooses sous chefs who are up to the task.

For some larger groups, taking turns hosting is key. In most families, the honor — or burden, depending on family dynamics — of hosting falls to the person with the largest home or the most china and silver. The requirements for Friendsgiving are less stringent than those for most family celebrations, which means almost any host can pull off a wonderful event, but the larger the group the more organizational skills needed to coordinate the meal.

Lane’s Friendsgiving crew began with her tailgating group, and they care about the details. “We park in the fairgrounds. We have three parking spots, so we take two cars and party in between. It’s a well-oiled machine,” say Lane. She and her friends take the same approach to Friendsgiving. They start planning at an annual pumpkin carving party.

“We take turns hosting,” explains Lyndey about her group. “We have had the event at probably more than five or six houses along the way. The host is responsible for setting up, ensuring enough seating for our group, and making sure that all the main Thanksgiving dishes — turkey, stuffing, cranberry sauce, pies, etc. — are accounted for.” But a large house and extra furniture aren’t required. Lyndey and her roommate, Katie Reed, hosted one year and borrowed extra tables and chairs from friends’ houses, decorating with table linens, pumpkin and gourd centerpieces, and candles to pull the look together.

And because friends can be a little more forgiving than family, a mishap here or there doesn’t ruin the day. “One of my favorite stories is about the time the sweet potato pie was half eaten by my dog, and Katie caught him in the act,” says Lyndey. “Thankfully, the pie wasn’t homemade and we took a #dogshaming photo that was posted online. Sadly, it never trended.”

Though Friendsgiving starts with the invitees, food is equally important. Menus for Friendsgiving vary as widely as guest lists. However the menu is decided, organization is key. All hail militant potluck organizers, because who wants their dinner to consist of sampling eight different squash casseroles? On the other hand, no one wants a turkey dinner without a side of at least one squash casserole, preferably one topped with crushed crackers and cheese. A finely tuned potluck is often the best choice for a well-stocked celebration. When families celebrate holidays together, the menu rarely varies, and different family members are responsible for the same dish every year, often for generations. Friendsgiving requires a little more finesse, with assignments for everyone.

While Ryan does most of the cooking himself, Lane’s group shares the work. Everyone is assigned a dish, and the meal is mostly traditional. Lane’s specialty is green bean casserole, a recipe from her mom, topped with French’s Fried Onions, because some traditions should never be broken.

Modern takes on old favorites are more than welcome. The menu also allows those with a culinary flair to shine. “Food is a great way to bring people together,” says Ryan. “It also lets me show off a little because I’m a really good cook.” He’s telling the truth. In fact, in certain circles, Ryan’s attendance at potlucks is prized for his pulled pork with mac and cheese alone.

But like Lane’s recent Mexican Friendsgiving, these events can go on with or without the turkey (or corn pie or pineapple and cheese casserole or fresh-baked dinner rolls). Friendsgiving is less about rules and more about fun.

Even though friends are the main component, Friendsgiving certainly doesn’t have to exclude family. Part of the reason Lane’s group has grown is because siblings of original revelers have been invited, and significant others and spouses have joined in over the years. The more the merrier!

Friendsgiving is a — mostly — judgment-free zone. In contrast with your dear Aunt Roberta’s leading, well-meant questions, it’s unlikely that anyone will be asked when they plan on getting married or when the baby’s coming. However, while Friendsgiving offers a superb opportunity to learn more about a variety of family traditions and to start new ones, it will never replace the traditional family celebration. “I think there are too many family traditions for that to happen,” says Lane. And as much as people might complain about having to dress up to eat the biggest meal of the year, and just as often as they privately lament the fact that the turkey is dry, family can’t be replaced –– and traditions keep everyone grounded.

Rather than becoming the new Thanksgiving, Friendsgiving is another event to enjoy during what is already a special time of year. “The holidays are extremely hectic,” Ryan says. “And there are a lot of expectations and time constraints. I think it’s important not to lose sight of the importance of spending time with the people that matter most, and have the most influence on one’s life — your closest friends.”

As the saying goes, “You can’t choose your family.” It’s true, and family is a gift from above, even if they weren’t on the registry list. Friendsgiving is a celebration of friends who feel like family and thus a welcome addition to the Thanksgiving season.

 

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