Monday, November 21, 2016

How to Survive Thanksgiving After the Election

The Rev. Dr. Leah D. Schade

Will your Thanksgiving table look like this?                                  Or this?

Either scenario contains the potential for altercations so divisive they could make your family get-together feel more like the poor turkey by the end of the meal – gutted, sliced and mangled. 
If you’re feeling some trepidation about what you may face this coming holiday – whether you’re a Clinton supporter (hereafter known as Blue Dot), a Trump supporter (hereafter known as Red Dot), or the host of this gathering who may be in either camp – here are some suggestions for surviving Thanksgiving after the election.  [Some of the suggestions are adapted from an earlier post entitled “How to be a Christian (and a Pastor) after the Election.”]

Whether you, personally, are celebrating or mourning the election, your role as host carries with it certain responsibilities, which means you will have to be as judicious as possible in handling a Red Dot/Blue Dot holiday.  Model for your guests the kinds of conversations and tone you hope to hear by setting an example with your own words and actions.  (See below for suggestions about how to do this as a Blue Dot or Red Dot.)

Remind your guests what this holiday is about – gratitude and giving thanks.  If you as the host are a person of faith, you may want to begin the meal with a reading from your sacred scriptures that speaks to this theme of giving thanks.  If you would prefer a non-religious reading, there are many options along those lines, too. (For both religious and non-religious readings about thankfulness – click here.) You may want to distribute copies of the reading to everyone and ask each person to read a sentence from it going around the table.  This, followed by a prayer of thanks, can symbolize that we each have a part in fulfilling the purpose of this day.  And it gives you a reference point if later conversations start to curdle: “A gentle reminder – remember what we read before the meal?”

Variation on “What I’m thankful for.”  A tradition in my family is for each person to say what they are thankful for either before or during the meal.  While this would normally be a fine practice, it may actually invite political divisiveness in a post-election world.  “I’m thankful that Trump won!” is the last thing Clinton supporters want to hear as they contemplate dumping the mashed potatoes on Uncle Frank’s lap.  So as the host, you may want to consider this prompt:

"Who is the most grateful person you know?  In what way do they inspire gratitude in you?"

A question like this avoids not only politicizing, but also invites deeper reflection about what it means to be thankful.

Your other role as the host is to remember that people’s safety is top priority.  Given the rhetoric of the man who is now president-elect, there may be people at your table who are experiencing alarm and legitimate fear about their physical and emotional safety, or for their family members, friends, fellow students and co-workers.  Women, people of color, immigrants and their children, people of differing sexual orientations, people with disabilities, those who rely on health care from the Affordable Care Act, and Muslims are among those who are desperately worried about their rights, safety and health as the new administration comes into power.  And given the behavior that we’ve seen from both sides in the aftermath of the election, there is a higher potential for explosive situations.  So if you are the host of your Thanksgiving meal and you start to hear disparaging words either from adults or children, it must be clearly stated that no kind of hateful rhetoric or derogatory remarks will be tolerated in your house. 

You may even have to state some ground rules either beforehand (if you know you’ve got a Sniper coming to dinner) or if the situation starts to unravel (if someone inadvertently steps on a landmine).  Remind everyone that your home and table is to be a place of peace and civility.  And if your unruly guest is a person of faith, you may need to remind them to behave in a manner that reflects the one whom they worship.  See “Dealing with Landmines and Snipers” below for more specific instructions.


If you are someone who is celebrating the results in this election, now is the time for restraint.  Do not gloat.  This is not like the Sunday after the World Series, or after the Superbowl.  This was not just some political game where the victors can good-naturedly rib the losers.  For half of this nation, this loss represents a crumbling of the basic foundations of decency, respect, and the means by which to preserve the common good.  For those who are concerned about the environment and climate change, the thought of the new administration rolling back every protection is terrifying.  For those whose very lives are threatened by people now empowered to strip their rights from them, the results of this election are panic-inducing.  So if you are celebrating after this election, remember – if it had gone the other way, you would be understandably disappointed and angry.  But you would have had no reason to fear for your health and safety. 

Thus refrain from insisting that people need to “come together.”  Avoid using words like “unify” and “move on.”  You cannot expect or even ask people to unify with a person whose words have authorized homophobia, misogyny, xenophobia, gun violence, sexual violence, racism and white privilege.  Or to “come together” with someone who has either explicitly or implicitly supported those values by voting for the person who encourages all of that.  Insisting that we need to "come together" with the incoming administration and its supporters is like telling an abused partner she has to go back to her spouse who has a history of verbal and physical abuse. Thus "unity" is a morally and ethically untenable position. Protection and safety has to take priority.  So even if you do not consider yourself guilty of those deplorable traits or positions and merely held your nose while you voted, the fact that none of those aspects were a deal-breaker for you in the voting booth is cause for alarm for the Blue Dots in your midst.  

So if you feel like sidling up to your fellow Trump supporters during the football game and giving a knowing wink and sly high-five – resist the urge.  I would have given the same exhortation to Clinton supporters if the election had gone the other way.  Practice compassionate space-giving, especially for those “blue dots” in predominantly red families.


How can I sit down to a meal with Red Dots?  What am I supposed to say and do?  How can I face those who are going to gloat over this victory and re-traumatize me with their teasing? What does it look like to be “family” in the midst of all this?” These may be the kinds of questions you are asking.  How you decide to answer these questions will depend upon the “temperature” of the room and the disposition of your host. 

If the Red Zone will be dangerously hot:
If you are facing a potentially threatening situation – one that makes you feel extremely vulnerable physically, emotionally or mentally – you can respectfully decline the invitation to attend, or come at a later time after the "danger people" have left or are close to leaving.  This election has been especially painful for people who have suffered sexual trauma and physical or emotional abuse. If you suspect that the Red Dots at the Thanksgiving table are gunning for you, or would be hard-heartedly insensitive, or would not come to your defense if you were set upon, explain to your host that you have other plans this year.  I realize this is not as easy as it sounds.  If you and your spouse/partner are Blue Dots, and you’re going to his/her Red Dot family for Thanksgiving, it may be difficult for you to say no.  Or you may feel guilty about depriving your children of the family get-together.  Or you may feel guilted by other family members who accuse you of depriving them of seeing your kids.  Or accuse you of “breaking up the family,” or being “too sensitive.”  You can explain that it’s just for this year.  Or offer to get together at another time, perhaps in a neutral location. But if you do decide to give Thanksgiving a try with a predominantly Red Dot family, or if you feel you have no other choice than to enter the Red Zone, you may face one of the following three situations.

If the Red Zone is tolerable:
The hope is that most people will be respectful, practice decorum, and refrain from giving someone a reason to want to lob a spoonful of cranberry sauce across the table.  Best case scenario is that everyone is well-behaved, gives appropriate space, engages in neutral topics of conversation, and everyone leaves breathing sighs of relief that it wasn’t so bad after all.  But if there is a Red Dot or Blue Dot Sniper at the table . . .

Dealing with Snipers and Landmines:
Chances are that there will be a clueless person whose brain-filter simply gets clogged with mashed potatoes and starts going off like a tripped landmine about their thoughts regarding the election, the state of the country, or “those people.”  Or the person may be an intentional Sniper (which can be a Red Dot or Blue Dot) who takes great delight in taking aim with their words or throwing a grenade onto the table and watching people bleed.  If you witness this (or hear about it from someone who shares with you what happened), follow the procedure recommended by a certain ancient sage from Nazareth as recorded in Matthew 18:15-17.  
First, try talking to the person in private, reminding them of the ground rules and the reason for the day (giving thanks), and ask them to refrain from that kind of behavior.  If they get defensive or refuse to curb their enthusiasm for mischief, ask a second person to join you in speaking with the individual and reiterating the ground rules.  If the person still does not comport themselves appropriately and you’re the host, thank them for coming and hand them their coat and a slice of pumpkin pie for the road.

If someone says something to you personally that makes you wince, or if a conversation is going on that is making you feel very uncomfortable, try saying the following:  “What you said really made me feel (hurt/angry/disgusted/afraid). Was that your intention?”  Or “This conversation is making me feel very (hurt/angry/disgusted/afraid).  Can we change the subject?”

Most well-meaning people, when hearing this, will respond either with chagrin and be quiet, or feel embarrassed and apologize.  But if you have said this and the person either continues, or tells you you’re being too sensitive, or says they were “just joking,” or is quiet for a while but then picks up the hammer and starts bashing later on, they have indicated very clearly that they do not care about you or your feelings any more than they do for the dregs scraped into the trash after the meal.  If that is the case, you can excuse yourself, thank your host for the lovely meal and take your leave.  In other words – have a plan for your own self-protection.      

Finally, if the Red Zone is tolerable for you, but may be a landmine for someone else, listen up:

Your presence at the table may be the saving grace that a Blue Dot needs.  So show up.  The day may be uncomfortable, awkward or annoying for you.  But for someone else it may be sheer torture.  So be an ally.  Run interference.  Be a person of refuge.  Offer to take a Blue Dot out for a walk if they’re showing signs of distress.  Or take a Red Dot for a walk if they’re getting out of hand.  See this as an opportunity to practice all your skills of diplomacy and compassion.  

By practicing strategies of peace and compassion, you may end up being the very reason someone gives thanks on Thanksgiving.

[Do you have ideas or suggestions for getting through this Red Dot/Blue Dot holiday?  Post a comment below!]

The Rev. Dr. Leah Schade is the Assistant Professor of Preaching and Worship at Lexington Theological Seminary (KY) and an ordained Lutheran minister (ELCA), though the views expressed in this post are her own and do not necessarily reflect the institutions she serves.  She is the author of the book Creation Crisis Preaching: Ecology, Theology and the Pulpit (Chalice Press, 2015).

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