Holiday family gatherings can be senselessly complicated affairs, so much so that “bingo” cards exist to let us subversively play along with the mayhem. Have the Electoral College just “mansplained” to you? Mark your card! Get a passive-aggressive critique of your turkey preparation? Check! Hear muffled sobs in a bathroom? Check! Battle a grease fire? Bingo!
Funny as such scenarios may be (long after the fact), they’re a far cry from the idyllic family gatherings depicted in Norman Rockwell’s Freedom from Want or Dianne Dengel’s Family Dinner paintings. But what if for just one day (only one day out of the year!), we could push long-simmering family resentments, political misalignments, and personality clashes to the back burner (on a stovetop far, far away) and host a peaceful, playful, meaningful holiday gathering? With some advance planning, these actions might make that happen.
Enlist others to help prepare the meal. Nothing softens hearts and minds more than the aromas of warm, buttery yeast rolls; a glazed ham or juicy prime rib; casseroles made with sweet potatoes, green beans, and squash (not together—or one hopes); and chocolate meringue pie that’s nearing its close-up. Also, nothing is worse than having to shoulder the responsibility for making all the above and more, so give yourself a break. Enjoy your own get-together by asking family members and friends (especially would-be busybodies) to bring a dish to the occasion. Offer them bonus points—perhaps little pots of herbs—for sharing their recipes.
Invite single friends who might otherwise be alone that day. Having been on the receiving end of such gestures, I can attest how much being around company on major holidays has meant to me—more than words could ever express. I may not remember the food we had on those occasions, but I’ve never forgotten my friends’ kindness and generosity. (Fringe benefit: Adding newcomers to the mix unwittingly tempers family dramas and helps keep manners in check.)
Help feed the less fortunate. Ask those attending your fête to bring one or more bags of nonperishable food items that are desperately needed at local food banks.
Involve children in a family tradition. From learning to make their great-grandmother’s dumplings or helping wrap homemade tamales, the time spent away from their phones or video games will pay dividends for the generation that follows them into adulthood.
Put a “grateful” jar or dish into play. Ask attendees upon arrival to write down what they’re most grateful for on a small piece of paper, then have them fold and drop the note into the designated dish. (One friend gave hers a vintage milk glass look by coating the inside of a wide-mouth Mason jar with white paint, then adding the beautifully lettered word “grateful” on the exterior with black letters outlined in gold.) During dessert, pass around the jar and let each guest read a sentiment aloud. For large gatherings, ensure people have signed their name to the note so the endeavor can move at a clip. Some families, however, prefer sentiments to be shared anonymously so that those in attendance can guess who wrote them. Whatever the case, the goal is just to get people talking about things that matter, via a quick feel-good game that can make a positive, long-lasting impact.
Begin the meal with a meditative moment by saying grace. It needn’t be a sermon—just a simple expression of thanks for the good food in front of you and the company of those you love. (Tip: Do not ask someone to say grace if they’re only capable of uttering, say, “Rub a dub dub, thanks for the grub.”) Granted, most of us are tongue-tied on such occasions, so when we hear a grace note said simply and beautifully, we keep it handy in our mental file cabinets.
One of my favorite grace notes has me remembering the cozy Northport, Alabama, home of a good friend, Sandra, whose father, Wise Dale Stewart, presided over some wonderful dinners there before his passing at age 80 in 2015.
Wise he truly was—not just legally (it was indeed his first name), but figuratively. With his imposing stature and mental prowess early in life, he served stints as an Auburn University football player and U.S. Marine Corps powerhouse (earning a third-degree black belt in judo). He later became a successful industrial engineer, and most importantly to him, a loving husband and father. By the time my husband and I got to know him in the early 1990s, Mr. Stewart was a larger-than-life teddy bear—an engaging raconteur with a penetrating gaze that seemed to scan one’s soul. His well-anchored spirit and well-calibrated moral compass undoubtedly helped his expressions of grace long resonate with us.
Lord, forgive us our sins, and accept our thanks for these and Thy many other blessings. Amen.
Looking back on the Stewarts’ family meals, I recognize now how effective they all were at being, well, gracious. Their secrets? Expressing a sincere interest in us—asking lots of questions and being good listeners. Treating us to beautiful home cooking prepared with love. Their warmth made us feel not only welcomed but also valued. And rarely did I leave without one of Betsy Stewart’s recipes, which I still cherish.
Mr. Stewart’s grace note dovetails nicely with another favorite prayer:
We receive this food in gratitude to all those who have helped to bring it to our table, and vow to respond in turn to those in need with wisdom and compassion.
This holiday season, let’s vow not just to wish for wisdom and compassion but also to exemplify it; to recognize and appreciate our blessings, small or large; to talk less and listen more; to eschew the trivialities of self-absorption and, instead, lift up those around us. That, my friends, is achieving true grace. What a gift that would be.
Text by Denise Gee
In our 2022 essay series, author Denise Gee shares memories and personal tales that celebrate the inimitable joys and escapades of Southern life. A Natchez, Mississippi, native, she is the author of six acclaimed books on Southern entertaining and design. Denise has worked for decades as a writer, editor, and stylist for magazines including Southern Living, Better Homes and Gardens, and Coastal Living—and now, Southern Lady. She and her photographer-husband, Robert Peacock, make their home in McKinney, Texas. For more, visit denisegee.com.
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