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Samantha Stephenson shares her tips for bringing a more contemplative spirit to your holiday preparations.

“You shouldn’t have done all this work!” This was the chorus I heard after the first few holidays I hosted for my husband’s family. 

“I don’t mind!” I’d insist, which was true. I didn’t mind, but I did end up feeling a little bit discouraged. 

Every time they said it (and they said it a lot), what I heard was that the work I’d put in wasn’t worth it. The menu I’d prepared after weeks spent gleefully gleaning ideas from Pinterest, the way I’d carefully positioned decorations, the candles I’d lit, and the wedding china I’d carefully laid out -- these things didn’t have the effect I’d hoped. While I had enjoyed doing all of those things, my family experienced something else. 

Instead of a warm and inviting holiday space, they saw a frazzled mom juggling stirring and chopping with pouring drinks and washing forks in between courses. And, if I’m honest, while I did enjoy the preparations, I didn’t enjoy being so immersed in what was happening in the kitchen that I couldn’t enjoy the party. 

And so, I’m developing a new style, one that blends my love of hostessing with an emphasis on being more present once family and guests arrive. After all, I am the mother, not the caterer or the party-planner.

If you’re finding yourself similarly hungry for more presence this holiday season, feast on these 5 tips to create space for giving thanks: 

Prepping Ahead 

Prepping ahead is a stay-present essential! While the traditional Thanksgiving fixings are many, one silver lining is that many of them can be prepped ahead and warmed on the day of. I love spreading out the baking of casseroles and chopping of veggies throughout the week, so that the turkey and potatoes become my main cooking focus on Thanksgiving Day, and everything else just needs reheating. 

Embracing the Dishes

On the one hand, a lot of the dishes we create at Thanksgiving can be eliminated with paper plates and single-use foil pans. If you’re looking to be more conscious of your budget or the environment, choosing to embrace the dishes can actually be a freeing experience. Doing dishes with one or two other family members is a great way to spark conversation and create memories.

If we’re willing to set aside our resentment of the cleanup, we can embrace a spirit of connection with those who have gone before us. Think of all the dishes washed by our loved ones who have passed. Think of all the holy men and women who spent so many hours of their lives washing dishes. The feel of soap sliding across the plate can be just as contemplative as the feel of a rosary bead between our fingers. The dishes do not have to be a burden if we can see them as opportunities for prayer and community.

Extending the Meal

One of my least favorite parts of Thanksgiving is that the actual eating can be over so quickly! Extending the time spent around the table can really help to mark the occasion. Try reading Lincoln’s first Thanksgiving address aloud, or, in a twist from the age-old Thanksgiving tradition, go around the table and for each person’s “turn,” have everyone say why they are grateful for that person.

Opening Our Homes

Extending hospitality to others, aside from being a biblical mandate, brings unexpected joy into our lives. Who is single? Who in our lives might be celebrating alone, or appreciate being invited to celebrate alongside us? Being creative about who we invite to sit at our tables is a blessing to those we invite, to be sure, but that isn’t the whole picture. Each of our guests in his own way brings a new way of experiencing God into our lives.

Rethinking What Makes This Day Special

This is a real challenge for me. I have to ask myself: what makes this day special? Is it the decor, a clean home, our fancy china? Honestly, while those things are important to me, my family has just as much joy when we eat off paper plates and embrace the realness of our home. 

Consider your own family culture and what traditions make your day a joyful one. Do you love celebrating with the Eucharist (literally, “thanksgiving”)? Is it the parade or the cheering of a crowd on a first down? Maybe it’s family games or a neighborhood game of kickball. Is there a way you can serve your community as a family -- whatever family stage you’re in this year? (We prepped hygiene bags to keep in the car for those in need.) Even Black Friday can be a great way for some families to bond if the focus is on time spent together. 

We can rejoice, even this year, especially this year, and witness to the truth: there is always more to be thankful for. #catholicmom

While the department stores and Home Depot might be ready to rush past this holiday and onto the more marketable “most joyful time of the year,” let’s sink into gratitude this year. The next thing will come, whether we pause to experience gratitude or not. We can rejoice, even this year, especially this year, and witness to the truth: there is always more to be thankful for.

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Copyright 2020 Samantha Stephenson
Image: August deRichelieu (2020), Pexels