10 Survival Tips for Thanksgiving Family Gatherings

Updated July 20, 2021
Thanksgiving Family Gathering

Thanksgiving is the time of year when you think of all the things in your life that you're thankful for. Often this list includes family, though you may not realize it when you're in the middle of the annual gathering of relatives from near and far. Fear not, brave holiday celebrant, for there are ways to know how to survive Thanksgiving with family!

Take a Pass on the Cocktails

This may seem counterintuitive since your primary urge is to knock back a few glasses of wine or dip into Uncle Henry's vintage scotch collection. Think of it this way, though: once you hit the point of intoxication, you'll end up saying or doing something that will probably be embarrassing, and that will become fodder for the next (and all future) family gatherings. Don't do this to yourself. Have a cocktail when you arrive to calm your nerves and a glass of wine with dinner, but limit yourself to these two drinks.

Bonus: Black Friday won't be so named because you can't open your eyes from the holiday hangover.

Prepare to Deflect

You likely already know several of the topics that will be discussed during your family's Thanksgiving event and many of the questions that well-meaning relatives will ask you. Don't go in blind. Instead, arm yourself with a few prepared responses and diversions. For example:

  • "No, I'm not currently dating anyone. I just haven't found a man that measures up to Dad/Grandad/Uncle Henry yet."
  • "My job? Well, actually I… Oh, you look like you could use a refill on your drink! Let me get that for you."
  • "Oh, you feel that way about the President, do you? How interesting. That's a lovely watch - where did you get it?"
  • "No babies yet. Why don't you tell me all about raising yours? Those are great stories, Aunt Eddie."

Take a Few Snapshots

Tell your family that you're thankful for them and that you want to get some special Thanksgiving photos of them all. Offering to be the family event photographer/videographer will give you a few advantages.

  • First, your relatives can't grill you if they're posing for a photograph.
  • Second, it gives you an excuse to leave a conversation at any time, because hey, look, Cousin Sarah is doing her Lady Gaga impression again, and someone needs to get this on tape!
  • Third, if you find that you really need a break, you can find a quiet corner to bust out the camera bag and pretend to clean your lenses.
  • Finally, you can kill a lot of time setting up for goofy shots grouped by family/marriage.
family taking a selfie

Put the Game On

What's more all-American than a Thanksgiving football game? If you're feeling a little tense or awkward at your family gathering, use your ninja moves to quietly and inconspicuously turn on the game. This effectively divides the family into two groups: those who love football and those who don't. Join whichever group causes you less stress, or opt for the football crowd because they will most certainly not be paying attention to you.

Spend Quality Time With the Kids

If there are children in attendance, you can give yourself a break from interacting with the adult members of your family by spending time with the younger set. Have a conversation with the shy cousin who seems to be just as uncomfortable as you are, or jump in and play hide and seek in the backyard with your kiddo cousins. Head to a spare room and turn on a classic holiday movie. Sure the kids will talk through the entire thing, but who cares. At least the kids are focused on the film and not your love life or career prospects.

Make Yourself Useful

Whether it's before or after the big Thanksgiving meal, there are plenty of jobs, large and small, that need to be done. Offering to help with these chores not only makes a good impression on your relatives, but it also keeps you busy and gives you something to focus on other than Aunt Margie's weird new hairdo. Of course, many hosts will decline your offer of assistance, so here's a refusal-proof response: "Nonsense! There's got to be something I can do, and this way, I can spend some extra time with you." Bam. Next thing you know, you're wiping crystal drinking glasses with a soft cloth and avoiding most of the crowd.

Give Them Something to Talk About

Most people enjoy talking about themselves and telling stories about their pasts. If you find yourself in a situation where you either don't want to talk about your life or you've run out of safe subjects to discuss, then ask a question that requires a story as a response. It helps a great deal if your question has something to do with family history since others can join in and add to the conversation. Tread lightly here and only ask questions that you'll be comfortable hearing details about. Asking your grandparents how they met, for example, is much safer than asking them to tell you about their honeymoon. Be sure to start storytime before the wine goes dry. Loose lips sometimes result in things that you can't unhear.

Dress for Success

Face it, no matter what you wear, someone will comment that you should have opted for something warmer/more formal/less baggy/less revealing. You can't please all of your relatives all the time, so dress in an outfit that makes you happy.

  • Go for something loose around the waist because. . .pie. Only the men of a certain age can get away with popping open the buttons on their pants to make room for more.
  • Don't wear all black because someone will remark that you look like you're dressed for a funeral.
  • Wear an outfit that makes you feel confident so that when you find yourself explaining (again) why you haven't yet made partner at your firm, settled down, and got married, or moved out of your small apartment, you can tell yourself, "At least I look good!"

Share the Joy

If you're married, then this one's a snap. You and your spouse will have plenty to talk about and rehash after the festivities. If you're single, consider bringing along a sympathetic, well-behaved friend who doesn't have other Thanksgiving plans. Consider an ally who doesn't mind fielding personal questions from strangers, doesn't drink too much, and has promised not to share embarrassing stories about you at future friend gatherings. This trusted soul will commiserate with you after the shindig, and during the gathering, they'll take some pressure off of you.

woman talking to her husband during Thanksgiving

Have an Exit Strategy

While you certainly don't want to be rude and offend your hosts, you'll want to have a plan in place to extricate yourself from the festivities when you've had enough. You don't want to be stuck without a few previously thought-out options because you'll end up saying something like, "I'd better get going, uh, because, um, I think I left my curling iron plugged in." It's tough to bounce back from that kind of lameness. Instead, employ one of these strategies:

  • Make plans before the big day to drive one of your elderly relatives home after the meal. Just make sure that returning to the family celebration afterward isn't a stipulation.
  • Volunteer somewhere that will benefit from your being in attendance late in the day. You'll be doing good work, and your relatives can't argue that you're leaving too early without looking bad themselves.
  • Apologize and say that you need to be up extra early the next morning. When asked why explain that you're picking a friend up from the airport, need to finish a paper for school/catch up on work, or that you're planning an epic shopping excursion for Black Friday so that you can get great gifts for your family. The downside to that last one is that you then have to give your family some epic Christmas gifts this year, but the payoff might be worth it.

Refrain from using the "not feeling well" excuse. This can trigger all kinds of sympathy aches in your relatives and will eventually lead to them blaming the chef for undercooking the turkey. You don't want that on your conscience.

Keep Your Eye on the Prize

No matter how apprehensive you are about spending time with your family this Thanksgiving, remember to be thankful for them at some point in the day. As some of them might already be reminding you, they won't always be around. When that happens, you can strive to be the annoying relative that everyone else complains about!

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10 Survival Tips for Thanksgiving Family Gatherings