For most of us, Thanksgiving is a holiday favorite, probably because it’s more about the gathering of family and friends without the stress of gifts and a month-long build-up. We can make it as simple or elaborate as we choose.
I have to confess: Growing up I was clueless to the hours of planning and preparation my mother invested into this one day. All of it simply appeared — the turkey, casseroles, desserts, autumn tablescape — with all of the warmth and love I still associate with the season. Then I hosted my own. Just figuring out a guest list and menu was daunting. So over the next 15 years, I challenged myself to figure out how to master such tasks.
Today, we’ll talk about how to overcome some of those obstacles. First, switch off the negative flashbacks that have tended to mount over the years, and let’s make this a most memorable year.
1. Since the pandemic, an important question is: “How do we gather while still being sensitive to guests concerned about COVID-19?” We all know the protocols to follow, with the most important one being to encourage those feeling symptomatic to stay home. You can offer to deliver a plate of food to them, and to those who still feel uncomfortable attending group events. So they feel a part, set a place setting with a laptop, phone or tablet, and have them connect by Zoom or FaceTime at a specific time during the meal.
You’ll also want to determine the space you’ll need with the number of people invited. Since November in Arkansas is typically perfect when it comes to weather, consider dining al fresco. A long table or a scattering of small tables out in the yard, on a patio or under a covered porch allows for extra space between guests. You can also count on nature to offer its finest backdrop, with colorful leaves, stars and sweet-scented breezes. Of course, have a backup plan in case it rains. Be sure to try some of the lighting ideas that follow.
2. How do I plan ahead?
- First, I create a menu. It’s never too early. For years, my grandmother made that call to my mother in October. It’s traditional now for me to call my mom and discuss The Menu. Should our meal be a strictly traditional one? Or shall we start a new thing by trying a themed meal? New and intriguing dishes should always include the tried-and-true favorites, keeping in mind the range of age groups, those with severe allergies and special diets.
- Next, I go over my guest list. Since no one person should prepare all of the meal, I get my guests involved. I’ve found most want to help. The key is to A) ask each adult to bring something they are guaranteed to knock out-of-the-park taste-wise, or B) have them bring easy to pick-up items, or C) ask them to bring a dish that fits with their special diet, and D) never feel uncomfortable ordering some prepared foods from places around town that do it as well or better than you can. There’s no reason to be exhausted.
- Finally, I ask for the preparer to add a recipe card for homemade items. This serves two purposes — those who have allergies and special diets can detect what they can have without undue attention and guests can take a photograph of the recipes they’d like to have, a gift in itself.
3. How do I start new traditions if I don’t have family around? Over the years, I have gotten to experience several Thanksgivings without my children and when my family was out of the country. Now with the pandemic and difficulties traveling, many of us are not able to make those connections with family and close friends. Friendsgiving has become a favorite tradition with many of us. We can invite our closest circle of friends and expand the event by including neighbors, colleagues and those we know will be alone.
Each time I have attended a Friendsgiving, I’ve always come home saying, “that was so much fun!” Mastering corn-hole in the backyard, darts in a safe zone, or board games anywhere equals laughing.
Keep in mind, a traditional meal is not a requirement. Spice it up. Nor is having the event on Thanksgiving day. If you want to meet on another day and plan a meal at a restaurant, do it.
If you have no plans, discover a way you can give of yourself and help others. During my childhood, my parents and I spent the middle of the day at our church, serving a Thanksgiving lunch to the underserved. Many were without families and homes, some were elderly and alone. We had our big meal later in the day. There are many opportunities to give, volunteering time at the Food Bank, church or soup kitchens and donating online. Giving of ourselves is a ten-fold gift we receive in return with a sense of belonging and fulfillment like no other.
4. What are some creative ways to add to the place settings? I personally like to create place cards for everyone. This eliminates awkward seating situations, like Aunt Carmen stuck at the small table meant for the kids or two strong personalities with opposite views sitting side-by-side. Making personalized place cards also creates a memorable takeaway gift. Who doesn’t love seeing their name beautifully written on a place setting?!
If you are having a large group and want to keep down the costs, here are a couple of ideas: 1) My daughter has beautiful handwriting, so I will have her collect fresh Magnolia leaves. With a gold paint pen, she writes each guest’s name. 2) Pick up some small tiles from a local hardware, craft or flooring store and have names written on those. The bonus is all of this can be done days ahead.
5. What if I want to decorate my house for Christmas before Thanksgiving? Since I absolutely love Christmas and decorate everywhere in my house, I simply leave the front porch, kitchen and dining room reserved for my fall theme. My totes from the attic are stored in the hall closet until after Thanksgiving.
6. If I’m taking a food item, do I need to also give a hostess gift? Of course! If I’m taking a requested casserole, I’ll wrap it in a cute dishtowel for the host/hostess. Other suggestions: nice dish soap or a lovely bath soap. A bath bomb allows for post-meal spa time. Another favorite is a bottle of wine to be enjoyed after company leaves.
Some Easy Projects
For some fun DIY lighting projects, try these:
- For lighting, simply hang strings of cafe lights or Christmas lights.
- If you are decorating with larger pumpkins, drill a series of small holes with a power drill and place candles in the center.
- You can also carve out the tops of apples or smaller pumpkins and secure small votives in the holes.
Pumpkin Ice Bucket
When you need an extra ice bucket:
- Get a large pumpkin — real or a fake one from a craft or home store. The larger the pumpkin, the more your ice bucket will hold.
- If you have a real pumpkin, cut a hole so it can either lay on its side or cut one off the top. You will need to clean it out.
- If you have a decorative pumpkin, you have no mess and can reuse it next year.
- Finally, add a name tag like “Chardonnay” to the stem or hot glue a ribbon with a tag around the pumpkin.
Pumpkin Floral Project
This is one of my favorite ways to decorate the table.
- Get a pumpkin and clean it out just like you were going to carve it.
- Soak a brick of soft floral foam (found at a local craft store) in water until it’s full, about 5 minutes. Place it at the bottom of your pumpkin.
- Buy a bouquet of flowers in fall colors from a local store and buy or cut some strands of Boxwood and Magnolia leaves for the filler greenery.
- Lay out all of the flowers, organizing them by type.
- Start with the greenery and something like Solidago, add in your Roses, Mums, Lilies and other flowers from the store bouquet.
- Other textures like cotton bolls or small pumpkins can be placed. To secure the pumpkins, insert a thin wooden rod in the bottom of the pumpkin and place it where you want.
You can send the flowers home with someone receiving a plate of food who couldn’t attend. Or you can stick a tag under a plate, and the one who has that tagged plate gets the table arrangement.
What we can’t forget with any event is the spirit of love and warmth we hope to convey to those in our homes and the homes we’re visiting. Making others feel special and loved is a gift to all. Look around and note who is not fitting in. Encourage them to help you or introduce them to a friendly group, making it the festive gathering of friends and family it’s meant to be.