7 Overlooked Thanksgiving Rituals, According to Sociologists

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The carving of the turkey, the saying of the grace, the watching of the football. If a Martian anthropology student asked us to name some cultural rites of Thanksgiving, these would be the first few to come to mind. But students of anthropology know that a society is not always the best judge of its own customs.

The first major sociological study of Thanksgiving appeared in the Journal of Consumer Research in 1991. The authors conducted in-depth interviews with people about their experiences of the holiday. They also had 100 students take detailed fieldnotes on their Thanksgiving celebrations, supplemented by photographs. The data analysis revealed some common events in the fieldnotes that people rarely remarked on in the interviews. Here are some Thanksgiving rituals you might not realize are rituals:

1. The giving of the job advice

Teenagers are given a ritual status shift to the adult part of the family, not only through the move from the kids' table to the grownup table, but also through the career counseling spontaneously offered by aunts, uncles, and anyone else with wisdom to share.

2. The forgetting of the ingredient

Oh no! I forgot to put the evaporated milk in the pumpkin pie! As the authors of the Thanksgiving study state, "since there is no written liturgy to insure exact replication each year, sometimes things are forgotten." In the ritual pattern, the forgetting is followed by lamentation, reassurance, acceptance, and the restoration of comfortable stability. It reinforces the themes of abundance (we've got plenty even if not everything works out) and family togetherness (we can overcome obstacles).

3. The telling of disaster stories of Thanksgivings past

Remember that time we fried a turkey and burned the house down? Another way to reinforce the theme of family togetherness is to retell the stories of things that have gone wrong at Thanksgiving and then laugh about them. This ritual can turn ugly, however, if not everyone has gotten to the point where they find the disaster stories funny.

4. The reappropriation of the store-bought items

Transfer a store-bought pie crust to a bigger pan, filling out the extra space with pieces of another store-bought pie crust, and it's not quite so pre-manufactured anymore. Put pineapple chunks in the Jello, and it becomes something done "our way." The theme of the importance of the "homemade" emerges in the ritual of slightly changing the convenience foods to make them less convenient.

5. The pet's meal

The pet is fed special food while everyone looks on and takes photos. This ritual enacts the theme of inclusion also involved in the inviting of those with "nowhere else to go."

6. The putting away of the leftovers

In some cultures, feasts are followed by a ritual destruction of the surplus. At Thanksgiving the Puritan value of frugality is embodied in the wrapping and packing up of all the leftovers. Even in households in which cooking from scratch is rare, the turkey carcass may be saved for soup. No such concern for waste is exhibited toward the packaging, which does not come from "a labor of love" and is simply thrown away.

7. The walking

After the eating and the groaning and the belly patting, someone will suggest a walk and a group will form to take a stroll. Sometimes the walkers will simply do laps around the house, but they often head out into the world to get some air. There is usually no destination involved, just a desire to move and feel the satisfied quietness of abundance – and to make some room for dessert.

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What are some Thanksgiving customs that might be unique to your family?

This story originally appeared last year.

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November 20, 2013 - 4:50pm
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