Young Professionals Thanksgiving dinner on table.

Thanksgiving dinner on table.

Thanksgiving 101: Celebrating with the in-laws

Published on November 19th, 2013 | by Josh Hafner

Josh Hafner, YP reporter.

Josh Hafner, YP reporter.

I married my love last June and this fall I will spend Thanksgiving with her family.

I haven’t spent the holiday with any family but my own in 25 years, but I know from past Christmases around the in-laws that my wife and I come from two very different environments.

She comes from a larger family of mostly women. I come from a smaller one of mostly men. The TV in our house was always louder than any conversation. Her childhood home didn’t have cable at all. I watched “Beavis and Butthead” with my mom as a young boy and thought it was hilarious. Her mom banned her from watching “Home Alone” because Macaulay Culkin proclaims in the film, “families suck!”

On Christmas night two years ago, I followed her and her extended family as they gathered around a grand piano. Every other family member, it seemed, raised a violin or drum as my then-girlfriend’s aunt played hymn after hymn and carol after carol. The whole family sang along.

It struck me as strange and almost Rockwellian. I stood toward the back with another visiting boyfriend. “Did your family do this growing up?” “Nope? Mine neither.”

I went back the Christmas after that and the Christmas after that. I sang both times and greatly enjoyed it. Then I joined the family. Loving the one you’re with often means loving the ones they were with before you, and the ways and traditions that shaped the one you love.

Families don’t suck, Macaulay Culkin. Not my in-laws, at least.

With your significant other’s family

One way to deal with Thanksgiving with the in-laws is to stuff oneself so full of turkey and candied yams that it induces a food coma lasting well into the evening.

If you prefer a less gluttonous way to get through a day of your significant other’s family and traditions, licensed psychologist and family relationship expert Dale Atkins has some advice: Just get over it already.

“You’re there on their territory. You’re a guest in this environment,” Atkins said. “Whether you have a good time or not is mostly up to you and not up to them.”

The key to defusing the potential awkwardness or conflict of Thanksgiving with your better half’s family is to know what you’re getting yourself into ahead of time. Who’s expected to cook? Who’s expected to play touch football in the yard? Are the younger cousins performing that pilgrim play again this year? “Forewarned is forearmed,” Atkins said.

It can be particularly tricky to navigate a close-knit family during the holidays, one that may have its own esoteric traditions, references and vocabulary. If you don’t get something they’re doing, just speak up or ask your spouse, Atkins said. Taking a first step may be the only way to infiltrate your in-laws’ family culture. And with that their hearts. And with that score some sweet presents come December.

“This is the family that spawned your spouse,” Atkins said. “For better or worse, the traditions that happen in that house helped to form the person you fell in love with. Just because of that, you can respect the tradition whether you agree with it or not.”

See our other Thanksgiving features:


About the Author

covers young professionals for The Des Moines Register. Josh can be reached at or on Twitter via @joshhafner.

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