Why, Not How, We Host Thanksgiving Dinner

Amid the busy holiday season, a reflection on the true meaning of hospitality
November 19, 2019 Updated: November 19, 2019

This year, I am hosting Thanksgiving for my family. That Thursday night, 14 people will find themselves crowded around my table that comfortably seats eight, hopefully eating turkey that is cooked and mashed potatoes that aren’t lumpy, hopefully laughing and talking easily.

Hosting Thanksgiving feels intimidating, not least because it feels like the epitome of food holidays. It was with equal surprise and trepidation that I realized my family has somehow deemed me adult enough to host such an iconic meal, and I don’t want to mess it up.

Naturally, I have been thinking about Thanksgiving for months. From the moment the leaves outside began to show signs of changing, I have been gleaning advice from the magazines in my mailbox about how to host a successful Thanksgiving.

Here are the main points: Pick a color palette that is in this year, maybe blues or browns but definitely not orange. Time your dishes perfectly so that everything is ready at once. Thaw your bird in the fridge days ahead of time so you’re not dealing with a still-frozen turkey the morning of. Practice biting your tongue when the great-uncle you can’t stand starts talking. Learn how to make it through the evening without mention of politics or religion.

I love a good color palette and table setting as much as the rest of us, but I can’t help thinking that if this is what we make the holiday about—putting on a good show and surviving our family’s quirks—we are missing something significant.

When we focus too much on how we are going to look like the perfect host and pull everything off, we make hosting about us, and lose its meaning entirely.

grandfather cutting turkey
Hospitality is about people. (Shutterstock)

The Art of Hosting

When I think about hosting people well, I think about my college roommate.

Jayna is an extrovert’s extrovert. She has a seemingly inexhaustible ability to be around people all the time. She loves any excuse for a celebration—I have never met another woman who can throw a party together as quickly as Jayna can.

Because of Jayna, the apartment we shared was a revolving door of guests, full more nights than it was empty. We were always running to the grocery store looking for the cheapest way to feed a crowd: cake mixes, frozen pizzas, pasta, and chips. We hosted birthday dinners, engagement parties, movie nights, Super Bowl parties, a Cinco de Mayo fiesta, and more. We did it all on a college budget and with very limited cooking skills.

The thing was, it didn’t matter that we mainly cooked boxed ramen noodles and had nowhere near enough chairs. People kept coming back to our apartment. Jayna has a way of making people feel known and loved that draws them in. People return to places they feel valuable, and because of this, our apartment was always packed.

Here is what Jayna taught me that year we lived together: To be a good host, you don’t have to be a world-class cook or live in the most spacious and stylish apartment. The art of hosting well is learning to offer what you have, ask good questions, and make people feel celebrated.

Showing Vulnerability

At its root, hospitality is vulnerable. Hosting well is learning to say to other people, “Here is my most personal, sacred space. I am offering it to you out of love.”

When we host, we take our homes, our time, and our selves, and we place them in front of our guests. That is a vulnerable place to be, but I also think hospitality is only rewarding and significant if it costs us something.

It’s a vulnerable thing, to let people in close enough to see our flaws and the places where we don’t have it together. Isn’t that why so many magazine articles talk about how to pull off Thanksgiving without a sweat, how to be the perfect hostess?

Real relationships with people involve being honest about who we are. When we invite people into our homes, we become a little more honest. And when we ask good questions, listen well, and do it over a good meal, we invite our guests to be honest about who they are as well.

Why host Thanksgiving, Sunday dinner, Saturday cookouts, or wine night? Why host in a world that is polarized, where we have been trained to view others who think differently than we do as the enemy? Why host people who have quirks or habits that bother us?

We host because, in this day and age, it’s perhaps more important than ever that people recognize the inherent value in themselves and others. And it is perhaps more vital than it has ever been that we offer people a space where they can be accepted exactly the way they are.

We host because, somewhere along the way, someone else has hosted and welcomed us in a way that has shaped the people we’ve become, and we want to pass it on.

I’ve got my recipes earmarked for this year’s feast. I’ve got the wine picked out and the table settings planned. But more than that, I am offering up my small dining room and mismatched chairs in the hopes that the people around my table will feel known, appreciated, and loved.

Because hospitality and Thanksgiving, at their roots, have always been more about people than about things.

Rachael Dymski is an author, florist, and mom to two little girls. She is currently writing a novel about the German occupation of the Channel Islands and blogs on her website, RachaelDymski.com