Thirty-some years ago, a couple we know started inviting a few friends over every Thanksgiving. They had no family in town. He would roast up some meatlike substance—they’re vegetarians—and she would make mashed potatoes and “gravy,” and other friends who had no family in town would contribute a dish of whatever they liked. Thanksgiving tables are welcoming that way.
We’ve never attended this feast since we do have family in town—but now it appears our friends were on the vanguard of a full-blown cultural Thing. “I’m pretty sure you guys gave us the first Friendsgiving,” I say, and they laugh that it has a name. I tell them, yes, the millennials invented it, right along with drone delivery and crippling college debt, because it turns out some 11 percent of millennials in their 20s choose friends over family that day. Among thirtysomethings, says that same survey from the global app Skout, the number jumps to 18 percent.
This makes practical sense, especially in a youthful city like Seattle whose share of 20- to 34-year-olds nears a whopping third of the population. Most of them weren’t born here, so family might be planes, trains, and automobiles away. That’s a journey few sane souls want to make twice in a month, let alone that month, and since December’s holiday week trumps November’s long weekend in length and nostalgic horsepower—Thanksgiving frequently loses.
There’s something undeniably fitting about Thanksgiving with friends: a motley assemblage of guests reflecting the variety of the feast table—all of that reflecting, for those inclined to meaningfulness, the dream of diversity at the heart of America’s creation story. Besides, relatives are great and all, really, love mine to death…but, to eviscerate Tolstoy, every family—happy, unhappy, doesn’t matter—is annoying in its own way. At the very least, the family Thanksgiving table can unleash more herbs and spices than Aunt Lou’s mystery stuffing.
Indeed, I can’t help but wonder if Thanksgiving isn’t simply a handy visual for a cultural shift so encompassing we can’t even see it: Friends are becoming the new family. Twenty- and thirtysomethings are famously rejecting marriage; Pew Research projections from a report last year found that when today’s young adults reach middle age, 25 percent of them—a record high—will never have married. This isn’t really surprising from a generation that has given us more terms for uncommitted togetherness than an Inuit has for snow—see, for starters, “having a thing,” “hooking up,” “friends with benefits,” and “it’s complicated.” Not the preoccupation of a demographic hustling down the aisle.
On the other hand, maybe we’re just correcting back to an earlier norm. Speaking in epochs, the nuclear family is sort of breaking news. Families didn’t really close off from larger kin networks till the seventeenth century, after which marriage reinvented itself around bonds of love instead of the age-old necessities of economic utility. When contemporary history ushered in the sexual revolution and the it’s-about-time empowerment of women, marriage reorganized yet again—as something freely chosen by independent agents, not dictated by biological or economic imperative, nor, since June 26, even sex of the partners.
The clear drift? Family is composed of whomever we love.
The thing is, that’s a fair working definition of friendship too—an institution which seems to be as ascendant in the current moment as marriage is declining. Maybe the rise of social media has abetted this, by tightening our tether to everyone we’ve ever known; by turning friend into a verb. Maybe television has helped, since the shows we’ve found most resonant have been about gaggles of friends being important to each other. Today’s young adults were weaned on urban tribes—with Ross and Rachel, Will and Grace, Carrie and Samantha, Jerry and Elaine and George and Kramer (and Newman) providing pop culture portrayals of committed nonfamily groups.
And so we talk up framily, solemnly intoning that friends are the family we choose, and we haul out the folding tables to gather, as my friends still do, fourth Thursday in November after fourth Thursday in November. Of course, these groups evolve as the vagaries of human relationship do, and my friends’ annual Thanksgiving feast reflects the shifts. About 10 years ago when a popular couple central to the energy of the gathering broke up, there was much hand-wringing over which partner would get “custody” of Friendsgiving—with the one who finally left taking a bunch of devotees with her. A few years later, an omnivore—fed up with Field Roast—went rogue and brought as his contribution to the vegetarian table a glistening 10-pound roasted turkey.
They’re still talking about that one, with all the carping and savagery one might see among, I don’t know…siblings.