Like many holidays, Thanksgiving can evoke strong emotions. I know a fellow who told me how much he dreaded Thanksgiving, ever since the year he allowed himself to be baited into a knife fight with his brother-in-law. His story reminded me of a character in the movie “The Ladies Man,” who said that he always carried at least two knives and a gun to Thanksgiving dinner.


Comedian Al Franken once said that his family celebrated holidays by sitting in the living room viciously criticizing one another, until someone had a seizure and then they had pie. Thanksgiving is often a time when family members, who manage to successfully avoid each other all year, are suddenly forced to spend an entire afternoon together. It is not coincidental that Hollywood chose Thanksgiving as the backdrop for dysfunctional family movies like “Hannah and Her Sisters,” “Avalon,” and “Home for the Holidays.”


Although this is a time when we should set aside our petty grievances to give thanks, the nerve-wracking nature of the occasion often puts everyone’s teeth on edge. At one family gathering it was suggested to my overweight brother that perhaps he was eating too much. He responded by throwing a plate of spaghetti against the wall. Perhaps you also remember my story about how my father pitched a roasted turkey out the kitchen door one New Year’s day. Throwing food unfortunately is one Stawar holiday tradition that Martha Stewart never considered, even while in prison.


Holiday stress often reaches its peak during dinner conversation, which frequently serves as a trigger event. Seemingly innocent remarks can quickly escalate into open warfare. For mystified outsiders, with no person experience of dysfunction to fall back on, I have decoded several classic dinner table comments below: 

  1. How’s work going?

Translation: If you are working, you deadbeat, when are you going to pay me back the money you owe me?

  1. Who made the lime Jell-O mold?

Translation: What could they have possibly been thinking?

  1. What’s your boy Jimmy up to these days?

Translation: Still on probation?

  1. Cousin Billy, what a surprise to see you here.

Translation: Is your television broken?

  1. And just exactly how much whipped cream do you intend to put on that thing anyway?

Translation: Don’t count on me administering CPR.

  1. How’s your Atkinson’s “diet” coming along?

Translation: Hey, everybody, doesn’t he look just like a balloon in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade?

  1. How does little Johnny like junior high?

Translation: Is the little monster any smarter than that dimwitted husband of yours?

  1. How is your writing “career” coming along?

Translation: Have you got them up to $10 dollars a column yet?

  1. Isn’t this turkey really moist, honey?

Translation: You’ll never be able to cook as good as my mother.

  1. This wine is great, Bill.

Translation: I didn’t know Wal-Mart had a wine cellar.

  1. Did you make this pumpkin pie?

Translation: We can’t expect much in terms of domestic skills from an overeducated egghead like you.

  1. No thanks, I don’t need any help.

Translation: As a daughter-in-law you are not qualified to handle actual food.

  1. It’s amazing how all this stuff just magically appears every year.

Translation: The fact that you are exhausted from cooking since 3:00AM this morning has completely eluded me.

  1. No children yet?

Translation: You may have a big successful career, smarty pants, but you will never be the woman I am.


Good luck making it through the minefield that is the dinner conversation, and here are a few final tips to help you survive Thanksgiving:

  1. Remember this is not a marathon family therapy session and not the best time to resolve lifelong resentments.
  2. Keep communications superficial. According to some of Randy Newman’s lyrics “Feelings might go unexpressed. I think that’s probably for the best. Dig too deep who knows what you will find.”
  3. Discourage alcohol consumption since that generally promotes uncensored disclosure, aggression, or flirtatious behavior, none which is particularly constructive at a family gathering.
  4. Unless you have been up all night making stuffing and baking rolls, don’t rhapsodize about how much you just love Thanksgiving. That could engender some resentment on the part of the food preparer. Forty seconds of carving a turkey is not the same as actually fixing the meal.
  5. Keep everyone busy. Watching parades or holiday movies usually puts everyone in a good mood. They limit actual interaction and avoid the latent hostilities that competitive activities bring out. Tryptophan-induced naps can also serve this purpose.
  6. Although it may annoy many women, marathon football watching is usually ok, so long as everyone is rooting for the same team or doesn’t care who wins.
  7. Avoid touch football, Twister or any other activity that might involve physical contact of any sort.
  8. And keep in mind the cardinal rule, no weapons allowed.


Terry L. Stawar, Ed.D.

LifeSpring Health Systems President/CEO

Liz Stafford

Author Liz Stafford

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