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The Family Thanksgiving: Putting the Fun Back in Dysfunctional

Updated on November 22, 2017

Sometimes the biggest holiday disasters become the stuff from which family legends are made.

Thanksgiving is upon us. Millions of Americans are heading over the river and through the woods to spend the holiday with family.

According to, an estimated 51 million Americans will journey 50 miles or more for their Thanksgiving celebrations. This endearing American holiday signifies the start of the holiday season and represents an event that inspires dread and fear in the hearts of many--family gatherings.

Many people approach the holidays with expectations of Norman Rockwell settings featuring harmonious families gathered around the table awaiting the presentation of the perfectly-cooked Thanksgiving turkey. But with such high expectations also come the potential for things to go wrong.

According to the National Fire Protection Association's website,, U.S. fire departments responded to an estimated 1,760 home cooking fires on Thanksgiving Day 2015. The Butterball Turkey Talk-Line expects to answer 11,000 calls this year in an effort to alleviate potential turkey disasters, according to the website.

But it is not only the potential for flaming turkeys that can make our holidays less than perfect. In the article "Do Holiday Expectations Cause You Angst? 12 Ways to Help" on, it is often our own expectations that get us into trouble. The idea that we can magically transform our own families into a holiday picture of perfection while eliminating past hurts and transgressions does nothing more than set us up for disappointment, says author Karyl McBride, Ph.D.

Over the years, my own family has hosted many memorable holiday get-togethers. And if you are imagining some warm family camaraderie like you would see on a rerun of "The Waltons," you have watched far too much television.

There is one particular holiday many years ago that we still refer to as "The Dysfunctional Family Thanksgiving." It began with my uncle making White Russians with strawberry vodka that were just a bit too strong. He probably had about three of them prior to dinner. By the time the turkey and trimmings were served, he was so intoxicated that he loaded up his plate with food, set it on the table, crawled into the next room and passed out on the floor. Dinner concluded with my mother asking someone to check on my uncle to make sure he was still breathing.

Later in the day my brother--after having one beer too many-- declared he was a rapper named "Ice Floe" and started making up a ridiculous rap song. Unfortunately, he lost is balance and fell backward into a toy box. Miraculously, he did not spill a drop of that beer. We eventually helped him out, after we finished laughing and taking photos.

All these events have been memorable, but the crown jewel of holiday faux pas has to be when one of my siblings had a little too much to drink and admitted to doing something that would have caught the attention of federal authorities. Even though this particular event happened nearly 20 years earlier, my mother was absolutely furious. I guess there are some things even the passage of time cannot soften for mothers.

As strange as this may sound, holiday happenings such as these do not keep us from having a great time together. I long ago gave up the idea of the perfect family holiday. Those expectations put far to much pressure on everyone. My family has simply learned to go with whatever quirky event may happen and has developed a sense of humor about what can--and probably will--go wrong.

That is exactly one of the points that Dr. McBride makes in her article: Let go of expectations. Rather than focusing on creating the perfect holiday, simply allow what will happen to occur and take pleasure in allowing people and situations to be who and what they are.

And as it turns out, the biggest disasters can make the best family stories. They just become part of the folklore that every family gathers and passes down through time. The Dysfunctional Family Thanksgiving is one of my children's favorite stories even though they were both too young to actually remember it.

As years go by and family members pass on, it is the memories and family lore they leave behind which help the younger generations get to know them. My children still enjoy hearing stories of my Uncle Jim, even though they barely knew him. My uncle had the ability to hold his breath for an unbelievably long time. Once he got a shark fin and decided to swim underwater with it in a popular watering hole near his home. This is around the time when the movie "Jaws" was terrifying swimmers everywhere. People were actually screaming and pulling children out of the water as he swam by. And this was in a creek in the middle of Pennsylvania. My uncle died when my children were very young, but they feel as though they know him through the stories of his antics that we pass along.

So as you gather together this holiday with your family, make sure you take the time to laugh and enjoy those less-than-perfect family members. Gather stories and make memories to pass down, no matter how strange or bizarre they may seem at the time.

And if your children ever commit a federal offense, make sure they never tell you.


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