No extended family. No cranberries. No turkey. Doesn't sound like much of a Thanksgiving, does it?

 

It certainly doesn't match the Norman Rockwell ideal of a big multi-generational gathering around a big browned bird.

The only bird on our table this year will be the pheasant painted on an odd vintage salad plate, part of the mix-and-match dinnerware that has become part of our new Thanksgiving tradition.

I used to celebrate Thanksgiving the Norman Rockwell way, with grandparents, parents, siblings, in-laws and kids. We always made all the traditional Thanksgiving dishes, and always served them on on my Mom's Noritaki wedding china, the only set big enough to accommodate a crowd.

We spent almost all day in the kitchen, first preparing that enormous meal, then cleaning up after it, finally retiring to the family room to watch some holiday special on TV and snooze off the L-tryptophan.

But one by one, those traditions have fallen away. First the extended family. The older generations are no longer here, and our generation, now middle-aged with young-adult kids, is scattered far across the country. We still manage to get together most Christmases. But Thanksgiving has become a do-your-own thing holiday.

Now it's just the four of us -- my husband, me and our two kids -- gathered around our table. The first few years, I tried to fill the vacuum I felt by knocking myself out to maintain all the other Thanksgiving traditions I'd grown up with. I spent endless hours in the kitchen preparing all those traditional dishes. But it wasn't as much fun doing it without a crowd to help. And we had WAY too many leftovers -- my husband and kids were not as in love with squash and mashed rutabaga and cranberry sauce as my family of origin had been.

A few years ago, we started doing the annual Hunger Walks at the Mall of America on Thanksgiving morning. It was a way to feel part of something bigger than just our little nuclear family and help feed people who couldn't afford a holiday feast. 

Then the daylong cooking ritual started to morph. Instead of automatically making everything we'd always had, I started asking people in my family what they really enjoyed. "It's just our holiday now -- we can have whatever we want," I told them. A few dishes -- the stuffing, the mashed potatoes and the pumpkin pie -- were on the sacred must-eat list. But nobody really cared about all those other foods --  including the turkey. Sacrilege! So I stopped cooking them and tried some new vegetable side dishes instead.

And instead of my wedding china, I started setting the table with a random array of autumnal-looking vintage dishes I've collected over the years. They aren't fancy and they don't match, but they have a warm, eclectic charm that I've grown attached to.

With less food and less clean-up, we have more evening and energy to do something else. Now we take a walk then go to a movie, after voting on which one to see.

Our "new" rituals have now been in place a few years -- long enough to start feeling like comfortable traditions of their own. How do you celebrate Thanksgiving? In the traditional Norman Rockwell way? Or do you freestyle too?