For a lot of people, Thanksgiving is about getting together with the extended family for a big meal and some together-time. But what do you do with that together-time after the meal’s eaten and the dishes are either washed or being ignored? We can’t all watch football all day, but how many forms of entertainment out there are suitable for kids without being drop-dead boring for teenagers and adults? What’s your favorite crowd-pleasing entertainment for a group of people of mixed ages and sensibilities, e.g. an extended family?
For the past eight years or so, our go-to post-dinner family entertainment has been board or card games: Not complicated German resource-production-and-management type things, but stuff along the line of Apples To Apples, which is flexible enough to be kid-safe while the kids are involved, and get more colorful and risqué once they drop out or go to bed. (A couple of years ago, my sister-in-law pioneered a version of the game that skips the green cards entirely; one player picks a red card, and everyone just writes down whatever they think that player’s ultimate idea of “intelligent” or “sexy” or “pointless” might be. It’s even more flexible, and pretty telling about how well the players know each other.) The last couple of years, we’ve been pretty fond of Who? What? Where?, a drawing game that has everyone picking three cards and then trying to draw, say, Darth Vader bobbing for apples in Paris. (This game has the advantage of being fun for people who’ve been drinking, which coincidentally tends to lower the adults’ drawing skills down to the same level as the children’s.) It isn’t as passive and restful as sitting in front of a film or TV show, but at least these games keep the kids, teenagers, and drinkers happy so the die-hards who just want to, y’know, socialize with each other for once have some peace and quiet and can talk.
I actually have no cousins to speak of, younger or older, so at holidays, my 25-year-old brother and I are the babies. After years of being scolded for excluding ourselves to do young-person things like watch football and nap, we’ve devised a few methods of entertainment interaction with my grandma, grandpa, and great-uncle. Over dinner, we steer the conversation away from hot-button political issues and toward the shows my Uncle Paul watches on TV, all of which are good, old-fashioned “no swearing and no dirty stuff” fare like NCIS. After much discussion of that and how handsome the guy on The Mentalist is, we retire to a game or two over cookies. For the past couple of years, it’s been either the aforementioned Apples To Apples, Scattergories, or Uno, all of which allow for maximum joking interaction without much mention of Sarah Palin, or whether my brother and I have been to church recently.
I’m sure the Parents Television Council will call me to the carpet for this one, but the strongest bond between me and my daughter Allyson is the one we forged by watching The Simpsons together. I am thankful I married a woman who—while she doesn’t actually love the series the same way I do—at least finds it funny, and our holiday gatherings rarely expand beyond ourselves and our respective parents, who also tolerate the show. Mind you, as it’s obviously not intended for kids, we’d debated how we would handle the show’s occasional obscenities, but in the end, we decided we’d just keep watching it around Ally until she repeated something inappropriate, at which point we’d take it off the table for family viewing. When she finally committed this sin at age 2, however, we were hard-pressed to punish her, as she used the word in the right context. (“Daddy, I want to tell you a story about a monster. A monster… from HELL!”) Instead, we took a different tactic, underlining that some words were “TV words,” i.e. only to be spoken by people on TV, and that if we heard her repeating any such words, she’d get one warning for clarification purposes, but anything after that would mean the end of The Simpsons for Ally. She’s now 6 years old, and not only are we still watching The Simpsons together—who says threats don’t work?—but she’s absorbed so much of the show that when I say the words “Lisa needs braces,” she immediately responds, “Dental plan!” True story. You’re welcome, next generation!
My little niece Hazel started expressing strong opinions on popular culture around the time she started talking. I may be paraphrasing here, but I think her first words were, “‘Rockabye Baby’ is way fucking overrated.” At any rate, now that she’s 6, she pretty much dominates the Thanksgiving entertainment at my mom’s house. Thankfully, she’s got good taste. Pixar is her thing, so we always wind up watching a Hazel-curated double feature consisting of some combination of Monsters, Inc., Ratatouille, or the Toy Story trilogy. (I suspect she thinks Up is a little less cohesive and immediate.) If she’s not interested in sharing the bounty of her impeccable cinematic sensibilities, she pops in her adorable miniature earbuds and tunes out the family with the portable DVD player I probably should not have gotten her for Christmas last year. I have to admit, the kid’s precocious; it took me 12 years of living this wretched, pitiful existence before I ever got that surly during the holidays.
With Jason Segel’s hopefully-not-a-bastardization version of The Muppets coming out on Thanksgiving Day, maybe this year is a good opportunity to catch the kiddies up on why Jim Henson’s creations were such an important part of our childhoods. They were certainly a big part of mine, and I’m not just talking about The Muppet Show, which Erik Adams is doing a great job of recapping for TV Club. If I were to really give my theoretical young’uns a proper education in how the Muppets appealed to my kiddie sense of humor without talking down to me or annoying my parents (i.e. before Elmo came to power), I’d pop in the DVDs for Sesame Street Old School, which shows what the program was like between 1969 and 1979. Then we’d sample some of the Muppet Show DVDs, but only a few, because explaining who Mummenschanz was will take way too long. Then we’d transition to Fraggle Rock. In every case, I’ll appreciate the adult humor and real emotional stakes, and the kiddies will laugh at the colorful puppets and their pratfalls. Then on Friday, we’ll go to the theater to see The Muppets, praying it doesn’t suck hard.
Family gatherings are weird. I can’t speak for anyone else’s extended clan, but growing up, mine was fairly small. We’ve always loved each other dearly, but have never been ones for potato-sack races or games of Charades. As a kid, it always seemed to me that everyone—my sister and I, older cousins, elder parents, aunts, uncles and grandparents—pretty much stuck to their own peer group. But that’s not true. It’s always all about the kids. And now that I fall more within a median demo myself, it’s obvious how the youngest generation is what brings us all together, much as my sister and I probably did many moons ago. Whether it’s Thanksgiving or somebody’s bris, my nieces, nephews, and pre-teen cousins get and deserve all the attention. They’re like a life force. Sometimes that means Uncle Morty emceeing odd Yiddish rituals, and occasionally it requires all of us missing quarters of football or innings of baseball in deference to Thomas And Friends. Mostly, it entails simply inhabiting their surreal world for a few hours, from pushing swings while poorly aping Katy Perry songs to playing a classic game of hide-and-seek, which is generally more fun than discussing politics and art with wired 4-year-olds in the room, let alone among just adults.
My grandparents have kept a few tapes around since my mom and her siblings were kids—meaning that when I was a kid, I’d watch whatever they had around during holiday-time when the grown-ups wanted to sit and talk after dinner. I’m the oldest of all the grandkids by far, so as time went on, I started eyeing the grown-up table and the magical conversations I was sure they were having; the TV-watching torch passed to my brother, and it’s continued on down the line. Our favorite was always Schoolhouse Rock, even though when I first started watching the videos, I had no idea what was actually being said; I just liked the melodies. And the dancing. (Remember those live segments?) As I got older, I realized that the grown-up table was actually pretty boring, so I’d occasionally venture downstairs to watch the videos with the kids, and I discovered they really held up. Now I could appreciate just how much information they packed into each song, whether it’s teaching me multiples of eight or instructing me on the intricacies of the legislative process. Occasionally, some weird cousin or whatever will venture down too, usually much older, but still unable to resist the charm of those videos. My family does occasionally do things that don’t involve screens, though, and last winter I was on vacation with a bunch of family members in the remote mountains of Utah, totally bored. So I taught them the game Celebrity. It’s basically Charades-meets-Catchphrase, with each person contributing the names of a few celebrities to the big pile you pull from. You might think different generations would have different celebrity references, rendering this game moot, and that’s sort of true. Certainly my aunt has only a vague idea of who Katy Perry is, or whatever. But so much of the game is about what happened earlier. Say my aunt confused Katy Perry with Kate Middleton. When she was doing all that describing of the “royal wedding” and we were all utterly confused, she was actually establishing a pattern we can go back to in future rounds. (The first round allows you to say whatever you want except the celebrity’s name, round two, you can only say two words, and round three, you mime.) So when the two-word round comes, she can say, “Royal wedding,” and we all know what she means. It’s harmless fun that lets us all geek out about which famous people we know, and gently poke fun at those who have no clue.
My family loves sports, and even though I’ve never been more than a casual fan, I spent way too much time growing up bored out of my mind while bowl games and other sporting events controlled our TV during the holidays. (“Screw you guys, I’m gonna sit here and read my Thrasher magazine!”) I don’t remember what holiday movies we watched regularly before National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation came out in 1989, but it became a Ryan family holiday classic the moment I saw it in the theater with my parents. By the following summer, I’d recorded it off Pay Per View, and we could count on watching it at least once when we were all together for Christmas. My mom had narrow tastes in movies—she’d always explain that to people by saying her favorites were Moonstruck and Sleeping Beauty—so it was tough to find something we all liked, but she was a big fan of the Vacation series. And despite what some film critics around the A.V. Club office may think—wrongly—Christmas Vacation has some of my favorite moments of the series. Shitter was full!
Given that I hail from Alabama, it should be no surprise that the one uniting piece of entertainment for the entire Gilmer family is one that unites most Southern families: football. Old, young, male, female, straight, gay, it doesn’t matter, because every Thanksgiving and Christmas, when the entire family is gathered, the center of the gathering eventually becomes whatever football game is on television. Once my grandmother gets her fill of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade, she gives the green light to flip to the early NFL game, and the TV stays tuned to football throughout the day as family members wander back to couches from the dinner table. Perhaps the most memorable was when the family lost its collective shit yelling at the TV after the infamous miscalled overtime coin toss in the 1998 game between the Lions and Steelers; the charge was led by my grandmother, who couldn’t understand the injustice done to the Steelers, even though we had no emotional attachment to the team. Christmas Day was no different, the TV tuned to the (now defunct) Blue-Gray Bowl or the (also now defunct) Aloha Bowl once all the presents were opened and food consumed, the family slipping into food comas. It didn’t matter who was playing; football was a common thread everyone—even my science-fiction rocket-scientist father with no interest in sports—shared on those holidays.
The youngest generation of my family is a little young for TV-watching or game-playing, unless you count bite-sized chunks of My Neighbor Totoro or the Muppets’ “Bohemian Rhapsody,” but one thing we can all agree on is this: The aquarium is awesome. I’ll admit to dragging my daughter off to see the fishes for the first time simply because it got too cold for the zoo, but once you’ve seen the jellyfish undulating in the underwater light or a massive ray brushing up against the glass, there’s no way to resist. Truth be told, nowadays we often linger by a given window after the young one’s interest has waned just so dad can catch one more glimpse. Partly, it’s that children’s awestruck wonder is contagious, but more importantly, I think their presence gives adults license to drop their jaded cynicism and simply drink in some of nature’s more fascinating creations. At first, I thought it was odd to see childless young couples strolling past the giant turtles on dates, but now I wish I’d thought of it when I was their age.
My mom remarried when I was 10 years old, and one of the first things my stepfather taught me and my brother was how to play bridge, so we could keep up with his side of our new family. Some of my fondest memories of childhood are of opening presents on Christmas morning at my step-grandparents’ house, then eating a big lunch and spending the rest of the afternoon rotating in and out of a seat at the bridge table, with a crumbling copy of Harry Lampert’s The Fun Way To Serious Bridge by my side. If we spent vacation weekends together, that meant epic bridge games that went on for days, broken up by the occasional round of multi-handed solitaire or Uno. My family was game-crazy throughout my childhood, which is a trait I’ve passed on to my own kids. For my 10-year-old’s last birthday, he got his first bridge book. We’re heading up to see my mom and step-father this Thanksgiving, and I’m hoping we’ll have time for a rubber or two between all the eating and the football.
In my wife’s family, which stretches from her sixtysomething parents to a 6-month-old baby, we’ve had some fun, multi-generation-spanning games of Phase 10 over the years. For those unacquainted, it’s a gin rummy-style game that comes in 10 “phases,” wherein you have to collect two sets of four, or a run of seven, or something like that. (There’s a pretty great iPhone version that will make this all clearer than I can.) The rules are simple, the game’s cheap enough that most people have a copy or two on hand, and it can accommodate a whole bunch of people if you’ve got the time and inclination. It’s one of the few games that can be played by my young nephews and my mother-in-law without a lot of fuss. My family is much smaller, but we’ve always had good luck with Scattergories, Outburst, and Apples To Apples. So if you’ve got four to six players, one of those might be more your speed.