Ten Rules for Thanksgiving

Ah, Turkey Day. The holiday devoted to overeating and unbuttoning your pants at the dinner table. On a day like that, when there are few dietary rules anyone bothers to follow, you might think that there aren’t many rules to follow in general. But you'd be wrong. Oh, so very wrong.

Because there are indeed rules and regs for Thanksgiving. And they amount to more than, "Yes, you have to sit at the table where Grandma put you." Here are the ten most important.

10. Turkey Is Only Important Symbolically, and as Leftovers
Everyone agrees that turkey is the star of the day: It gives the house that all-important turkey-cooking smell, and the fat, cooked bird becomes the centerpiece of the table. It’s Rockwellian: turkey, table, Grandpa, happy. But does anyone really think that it’s the most delicious item on the table? Maybe it was a thing back in the dark days when it was less common to have meat of any sort on the table, let alone a huge bird. But these days, especially with the simple carb being the great bogeyman of the 21st century, diners are probably a little more excited about eating potatoes without shame. Besides, everyone knows that turkey is best piled high on a sandwich the day after, on good wheat bread (or white, if you’re going old-school), with mayo, cranberry sauce, a thin layer of stuffing, thinly sliced gherkins from the relish tray, and a sprinkling of french-fried onions left over from the green-bean casserole. Perfect.

9. There Are No Such Things as Thanksgiving Decorations
Don’t try to Pinterest your way into thinking that there are. No lights, no wreaths, no semi-repurposed Christmas ideas. A friend invented a Thanksgiving tree — just a Christmas tree with little turkeys and Pilgrims and muskets on it and the upright turkey drumstick as the tree topper. I told him it was ridiculous, and he actually agreed. “I know it’s stupid,” he said, “but I’m making a killing on Etsy.” Commercialism: the reason for the season.

8. You Can’t Have Too Many Side Dishes
Side dishes are where Thanksgiving really shines. Yes, you have to have the stuffing (or if you’re from the south or parts of the Midwest, the dressing) and the mashed potatoes and the cranberry sauce. Everything else is up for grabs. Corn is important here: corn casserole, scalloped corn, creamed corn, what have you. Then, out of guilt, something green: Green-bean casserole is traditional, but you can also do grilled Brussels sprouts or buttered peas with baby onions. And then there are the alt-potatoes: yams, with marshmallows or without (the correct answer is "with"), buttered, brown-sugared, maybe with pecans. Butternut squash with brown butter, glazed carrots, cauliflower gratin, grilled greens with garlic and chiles, homemade noodles cooked with the drippings from the turkey. Pure. Heaven. Side rule: This will be the only day of the year when you sincerely wish that you had a gravy boat.

7. Stuffing Should Be Simple
Speaking of side dishes, here’s a list of things you shouldn’t have in your stuffing: oysters (in Colorado, at least; the rules are different in Massachusetts), cranberries (we already have the sauce, thanks), tomatoes (tomatoes?), apples (it’s not a pie) and mushrooms (because mushrooms are just disgusting in general). Stuffing should be made in a separate pan, by the way, not only because it gets crispy and fluffier, but also because of safety concerns: Stuffing it in the bird the night before might save you time, but you run the risk of poisoning everyone, which is less than festive.

6. Choose to Be With Your Family
Enjoy them, even the ones who voted differently than you, even the ones who disapprove of your lifestyle, or career choice, or relationship status, or past, or present. Sit with them and share a crescent roll. Laugh about something you both think is funny; tell a story. Because there’s going to come a Thanksgiving someday when they’re not there, and you’ll miss all the stories and jokes and crescent rolls you didn’t share with them. We live in an immediate world; Thanksgiving is the day for taking a step back, relaxing and taking the long view.

Keep reading for more Thanksgiving rules.

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Teague Bohlen is a writer, novelist and professor at the University of Colorado Denver. His first novel, The Pull of the Earth, won the Colorado Book Award for Literary Fiction in 2007; his textbook The Snarktastic Guide to College Success came out in 2014. His new collection of flash fiction, Flatland, is available now.
Contact: Teague Bohlen