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The gobble squabble: family politics of Thanksgiving

Source: Scripps Howard News Service
Date: November 20, 2003

My place or yours?

Thirty-eight percent of American adults plan to sponsor the traditional Thanksgiving dinner this year, according to a survey by Scripps Howard and Ohio University.

The rest are making other arrangements.

Who will host Thanksgiving dinners often becomes a difficult question fraught with complex family politics.

"Thanksgiving can be a hard time. People get stressed," said Sister Mary Louise Foley, a Roman Catholic nun at the University of Dayton who holds workshops to help people cope with pressures of the holiday season.

"Just getting your house clean can be a major ordeal for some people. And in many families, the burden falls on the same person year after year. Or when it falls to a younger member of the family, they can get pretty nervous," Foley said.

Maybe that's why so many Americans will be dining out this year. The survey found that 45 percent plan to gobble their turkey- or ham-laden plates at a relative's house; 3 percent will eat with friends; 6 percent will dine at a restaurant or religious gathering; and 8 percent are either undecided or will skip Thanksgiving altogether.

The poll found the issue of where to celebrate Thanksgiving is heavily influenced by many factors, especially when children are involved. Forty-three percent of Americans who have children expect to host Thanksgiving this year, compared to 29 percent of childless adults.

"Thanksgiving almost always becomes a major issue in contested divorces," said Marcia Maddox, a divorce attorney in Vienna, Va. "Thanksgiving, certainly to divorcing people, assumes a much higher importance because they are losing their spouse and so care more about having the rest of their family with them during the holiday."

About 10 percent of the time, judges must rule on where children in broken homes will spend Thanksgiving. Maddox said the courts have commonly adopted a formula that alternates between mom and dad every other year. And whoever has the children on Thanksgiving probably won't have them on Christmas Day.

The poll found that Thanksgiving is a deeply embedded, almost universal holiday. Ninety-one percent of the adults polled said they usually gather for a special meal on the fourth Thursday in November. More than three-quarters of the Hispanics interviewed, many of whom were born abroad, said they plan to celebrate this year.

But whether to host the meal is a more fluid question. The survey found that married women are the most likely group to report that they will host Thanksgiving, while single men are the least likely.

Serving the traditional meal also varies according to age. Only about a quarter of people in their late 20s and early 30s expect to host Thanksgiving, compared to nearly half of people in their late 40s and early 50s.

Also, people with high incomes seem more likely to host the meal than economically disadvantaged households. Forty-four percent of people in households earning more than $100,000 a year plan to have Thanksgiving at home, compared to 29 percent of households earning less than $25,000 a year.

Foley said she has advised families that they can creatively avoid disputes around Thanksgiving.

"Why not talk the family into having a potluck? It could be a much better meal and more fun," she said. "Or how about a progressive Thanksgiving dinner (one course at each home)? That way everybody has to have a clean house!"

The survey was conducted at the Scripps Survey Research Center at Ohio University. Residents of the United States were interviewed by telephone from Oct. 20 through Nov. 4 in a study funded by a grant from the Scripps Foundation.

The overall poll has a 4 percentage point margin of error, although the margin increases when examining attitudes among smaller groups within the survey.

Further details of the poll and the operations of the Scripps Survey Research Center can be found at www.newspolls.org.