The Rules of Engagement: Family Holidays


Several years ago, my husband moved a log cabin that predates the Civil War from my mother’s family’s land over to his family’s land. Once it was moved and reassembled, I quipped that we had to stay together now because my ancestral home was now anchored in his dirt. 

From then on, we have had a blended family Thanksgiving gathering in the country -my family, parts of my husband’s family and some of my sister-in-law’s family, with occasional rotations of college friends or other folk from out of town who happen to be visiting any of us.  It’s a casual day taking walks in the woods, rocking on the porches, tossing a ball out in the yard or sitting by the fireplace. We wear jeans and boots, eat on paper plates with turkeys and fall leaves, and everyone brings their same dish to round out the meal.  

We generally have shared values, this eclectic group, but my husband and I have had to set the rules of engagement when it comes to conversation. We can talk about God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit. We can talk about the first Thanksgiving, the Pilgrims and the Indians. We can talk about our great country. But we CANNOT talk about football.  

Football?  Yes. Football.    My husband and I are a ‘mixed marriage,’ which in the state of Alabama means I went to Auburn and he went to Alabama.  Actually it’s more than that. I went to every home football game at Auburn from the time I was a third grader until I married him at age 24.  He went to most every game at Alabama wearing a red blazer his dad required (though he wanted to be in a #22 Johnny Musso jersey) from the time he was a kid until after college when he entered AOCS in the US Navy.   All his people went to Bama.  All my people are Auburn graduates and fans.  

We just can’t talk about it.  Thanksgiving is forty-eight hours before the Iron Bowl.  You could call this the pre-game meal. Everybody is nervous. This crowd can’t even kid each other.  It’s not funny.  So we made the rule:  Do not talk about football at Thanksgiving!  

People keep coming back, so it must be working.

This year the Rules of Engagement are being amended. We aren’t going to talk about politics either.  

Didn’t I say we had shared values?  Yes.  We think much more alike on politics than we do on football.  The problem is when we don’t think alike, and I’m talking nuances among this crowd; but our southern family hadn’t met a hair they couldn’t split or a bone they couldn’t pick clean. And our family’s problem is no different from the rest of the country’s.  We all think of ourselves first.  We want to speak our piece, rather than make peace. We forget to respect each other’s stories, to understand that we all have separate lens through which we view an issue that shapes our opinion on it.  

We forget that the body sitting across the table from us is a soul loved by God. We forget that that  this soul might be fragile or wounded or tired or in pain - just trying to get through the day.  Our need to be heard and be right tramples over their need to be loved and brought into relationship.  Our need to prove superior thinking stampedes over their need to be respected. 

Some of us are older, have lived a long time, paid a lot in taxes and seen our share of scoundrels and scandals. Some of us are younger, trying desperately to stand up for and live out the values we were taught by the older ones.  The older ones, by virtue of experience -and experience is a virtue to be respected - are afraid of the direction things are going. The young, though they are inexperienced, they are not afraid. Bravery is a virtue too. And they’ll need to be courageous for the future. Let’s give each other space and grace.  The veterans, the bravest of all among us, deserve our honor. Period.

The 19th Amendment was ratified in 1920. My grandmothers were both sixteen years old when women in this country were granted voting rights.  One of them lived and birthed her first two children in the log cabin where we will eat our Thanksgiving meal. I don’t want to know about it if a woman sits down at that table and didn’t ‘speak her piece’ at the ballot box.  But like that point in wedding ceremonies when congregants are asked to ‘speak now or forevermore hold your peace,’ we spoke on Election Day, so at Thanksgiving, let’s forevermore hold our peace…for the sake of those we love. 

Leah SlawsonComment