Family gathering

Revisiting Thanksgiving Traditions

Zarak Khan
Behavioral Innovation Director, Maritz

Editor's Note: Every year, shortly after Halloween, I have a very vivid dream: I am sitting very peacefully and contentedly in my home, perhaps sipping a scotch, maybe just thinking of my blessings. Suddenly, something slams against the window with the force of a thousand generations! I pull the shade to reveal Paul Revere, decked out in full Revolutionary regalia, yelling with despair, “The holidays are coming! The holidays are coming!!!” My quiet home melts away and I find myself on a carnage-strewn battlefield, tense, afraid and faced with a war I didn’t choose, but a war I must fight. But that’s just MY holiday tradition.

Zarak Khan discussses some new theories of more traditional traditions.

A few years ago, my grandparents were in the hospital and my family gathered at their home in Florida to help out. It was perhaps the first time we had all been together for a non-holiday event. Unsure of what we should do in this new context, and tired from the last-minute travel, we decided to order pizza for dinner. What we thought would be the simplest course of action led to a 30-minute discussion of toppings, sizes and styles before we settled on one veggie and one meat pizza. While waiting for the delivery, I started thinking about the role of traditions in family gatherings. 

Every year, my family gets together for Thanksgiving. Between the food, storytelling and catching up, it’s probably my favorite holiday. I enjoy the familiarity and the comfort of the traditions and routines.   

Traditions and rituals can certainly enhance the experience for people and create a bond of shared identity. “Rituals connect a single experience to many other past and future experiences just like it,” write Jeff Kreisler and Dan Ariely in their book, Dollars and Sense [Editor’s note: I did not pay for this endorsement] “That connection gives the experience extra meaning by causing it to become part of a tradition that extends back to the past and forward into the future.” Traditions also help shape our memories and create a feeling of nostalgia. This is made even stronger by the incorporation of novelty — such that the ritual is unique to this group or this setting (I mean, what other time of year do you get to eat pumpkin pie and stuffing?).

I think there is a secondary reason traditions exist. Traditions are there to limit the number of decisions a group has to make together.  

Q: Where do you want to have Thanksgiving this year?
A: Well, we always have it at grandma’s house.

Q: What do you want to eat?
A: If you even suggest anything other than turkey, you’re out of the will.

Q: What day should we get together?
A: This is settled law! 

Traditions are there to limit the number of decisions a group has to make together. 

There are all kinds of things going on when a big group of people gets together. You don’t want too many decisions to bog everyone down. Think of it as choice overload on steroids — we already know that people either freeze or start making bad decisions when options get too complex. Now imagine that you have to do that in conjunction with fifteen other, equally baffled people. Most traditions are a positive way of helping people focus on other things, like socializing, instead of wasting brain power on negotiating different foods, locations and coordination.

So, what about when you want to change a tradition? I’d recommend two strategies to try. 

One is to create a tradition of trying new things. Maybe it’s a themed Thanksgiving that changes each year or you have a tradition of making a few new dishes. I started doing this a few years ago, and now there’s an expectation that along with the classics, there will be at least one or two novel items to try. (My recommendation: stuffed pumpkin)  

A second strategy is to reset the group norm by getting to a tipping point of allies. Some recent work by Damon Centola at the University of Pennsylvania suggests that getting 25% of the group on your side is enough to swing the majority. I’m assuming my cousin read this before announcing that this year we’re doing a vegan Thanksgiving. It’s not that the majority of the group is vegan, but roughly 25% of us are.  And they didn’t bring it up for discussion … they just announced it! What a coup!  

Just make sure you don’t alienate any of the family. I have a sneaking suspicion that this year, there will be a contingent of Tofurkey haters, huddled around a turkey in a closet, their meal lit only by the flickering of a bare lightbulb, plotting their revenge next year... 

Zarak Khan
Behavioral Innovation Director, Maritz


Get the latest behavioral
science insights.