I’ve spent every Thanksgiving with my parents and four siblings, except for one. When I was 18, I lived in an international community in West Africa—a bit too far of a commute back to the Midwest of the United States—and so I spent the day eating with my six roommates: three Americans, one Brit, one Canadian, and one South Korean. As much as I love the time spent around the table with my family, that Beninois Thanksgiving is the sweetest in my memory. For our non-American buddies, we performed a dramatic telling of the fictionalized story behind the meal, then we shared a feast of the classic foods… or the closest we could find on another continent. We ate so much we went to the ground to roll around in pain. When my own parents and siblings were two eight-hour flights and five time zones away, passing turkey and pie around the table turned these roommates into the family that I craved.
Those three American roommates have remained my family over the eight years since that first holiday. While we’ve not spent another Thanksgiving together, we’ve walked with one another through weddings, a divorce, and a funeral; we’ve traversed the country back and forth to offer a hug in hard times. We’ve talked with each other’s mothers on the phone; we’ve prayed via text messages in the middle of the night. We bicker and tell each other when we’re not being good friends. While we might not share DNA, our loyalty is stronger than blood.For adults who don’t have a family of their own, Friends-giving is a trend that provides much-needed communion in the loneliness of the holidays.
In my favorite episode of Gilmore Girls, Lorelai and Rory must make their rounds through four different Thanksgiving celebrations. They start the day off at a straitlaced tofurky dinner with Laine, Rory’s best friend, providing respite for Laine from her overprotective mom. Bellies rumbling with the dissatisfaction of fake meat, they scurry to join Lorelai’s dear friend Sookie, distressed over a vat of oil and her husband’s intentions to deep-fry a turkey. Across the street, the curmudgeonly diner owner, Luke, prepares a table especially for the mother-daughter pair, taking a break from the busy restaurant to sit and eat with his closest friends. At each table, the lines of friends and family swirl together like the food mingling on their plates—alternative units of communion when nuclear families are not around.
Only after Lorelai and Rory have their needs for care fulfilled can they venture into the home of Lorelai’s parents, Richard and Emily. Even around the table with kin, boundaries of friends and family blur. Each generation desires the flourishing of the others, but the tension between varying definitions of success only exacerbates their formal interactions. Gilmore Girls doesn’t disparage familial relationships for the sake of elevating close friends. Instead, it reveals the nuances and tensions of love in various kinds of relationship, showing the need for both relatives and friends to serve as family. It’s no surprise that these dynamics are most effectively portrayed in scenes around the table—it’s in the intimacy of dining that both arguments and true concern bubble to the surface, cementing relationships in the breaking of bread.
In every season of the show Friends, the gang spends Thanksgiving together. Sometimes the holiday companionship is accidental, like when Rachel misses her flight to Vail. Sometimes it’s the result of family drama, like when Joey is disinvited from his parents after participating in an awkward ad campaign. In these cases, friends are the balm when nuclear family cannot be around. For Phoebe and Chandler, whose families have long been a mess, sharing the holiday with friends brings healing from the ache associated with Thanksgiving. “I’m very thankful that all your Thanksgivings sucked!” says Chandler at the end of a dinner of grilled cheese. “If you’d been with your families, we wouldn’t all be together.”
Different guests join the group for Thanksgiving each year. One year it’s a date for Monica, another it’s an old high school friend. Monica and Ross’s parents and Rachel’s sister all make holiday appearances as well. With each guest, the gang bonds together as family to urge one another toward their best behavior. In these cases, the roles of friends and family are reversed—friends function as a family and treat family like most would friends. All the while, the gang itself is made up of close kin too—Ross and Monica share their sibling rivalry; Monica and Chandler eventually marry; Ross and Rachel have a child together, building a family of their own. When the labels for relationships cease to remain clear, the meal is a place for laughter, memory-making, and communion. It’s a place for deep love no matter the genetic relation.
The kinds of celebrations central in both Gilmore Girls and Friends have earned their own name in popular culture today: Friends-giving. Adults across the United States organize and host celebrations complete with roasted turkey, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, and pumpkin pie. For some, this is an alternative when genetic family is unavailable, for others it is an additional celebration, where the spirit of Thanksgiving is spread to other close relationships too. It might sound like a silly tradition to those who regularly spend Thanksgiving with parents, siblings, aunts, uncles, and cousins. But for adults who don’t have a family of their own, it’s a trend that provides much-needed communion in the loneliness of the holidays.
It should be no surprise that around the dinner table we—Lorelai and Rory, Phoebe and Chandler, my roommates and all kinds of friends—find relationships that provide the care we so crave. These friends have discovered the depth of goodness that God designed each meal to provide. At the heart of Christian tradition is the creation of a new family around a meal of bread and wine. This table fellowship should be the hallmark of how we learn to live as the family of God—forsaking the limits of bloodline to be family with all our brothers and sisters in Christ. This doesn’t mean just congenial conversation over coffee and cookies after the service. It means sitting down at a table for the witty banter, the bitter fights, the deep laughter, the tearful confessions. It means eating Rachel’s nasty trifle and giggling with her when she realizes that peas and beef aren’t meant to go alongside ladyfingers and whipped cream. It means deep-frying a turkey with a handful of friends and making four kinds of potatoes so that everyone feels at home. It means pestering one another because that’s simply what siblings do. It means breaking down the walls that keep us from truly knowing one another’s joys and pains.
Such depth of friendship isn’t just a nice addition to the nuclear family into which we’re born; it is central to what it means to be the Church. We’re told to leave our fathers and mothers for the sake of following Christ. We’re meant to reorient our understanding of family, viewing ourselves as members of a global and historical communion of Christians. Through this familial framework, God reveals his deep care for the lonely. In taking communion together, we pledge ourselves before the Lord to the care of our worshiping community. It’s the sort of pledge that must extend from our communion tables to our holiday tables, our dinner tables, our lunch tables, and beyond.
Jesus’ entire ministry took place around meals, turning water into wine, five loaves and two fish into a feast for a crowd of thousands, making himself known in the breaking of bread to the disciples on the path to Emmaus. It’s neither small nor random that Jesus told his followers to eat regularly in his remembrance. When we eat together, we acknowledge our reliance on God, on one another, and on the fertile ground to provide for our most basic need. And we find that God designed the world such that this basic need for food and our emotional need for companionship are met together in the most delightful of ways: in eating. This shared delight and vulnerability creates the space for our cares and concerns to bubble to the surface. While the inherent intimacy can be misused, exacerbating tensions as in the eldest Gilmore household, it can also lighten the weight of disagreements and allow space to find common bonds. When we understand that Christ is present whenever we dine together, our meals become acts of worship. God’s nourishment of our individual and communal bodies and souls can never be disentangled.
My parents hosted their own Friends-giving this year. Dad smoked a turkey, mom made multiple pies. They invited over a dozen of their closest friends: couples, single folks, young families, and grandparents, each generation bringing valuable wisdom to the table. They made sure to invite folks who won’t be near kin this year, and some who will. My own parents still reserved Thursday night for a feast with their five kids, but only after sharing communion with their extended family of friends. They ate together just as they believe followers of Christ are supposed to do and the joy of that evening has lasted far longer than the many leftovers.
Not every Friends-giving will lead to relationships like the honorary sisters I found at age 18, but each meal, with all of its drama, ensures that those who eat have place to belong. I believe that this is precisely what Christ intended his feast of bread and wine to do. Not everyone needs to be a Sookie or a Monica—able to seamlessly whip up an elaborate meal—for their hospitality to glorify God. But those who dine at the Lord’s table should fill their tables at home with friends and family too. Even an ill-made trifle, a tofurkey, or a dinner of grilled cheese can serve as fodder for the body of Christ to grow.