Creative takes on the traditional family holiday
By Loretta Fulton
Welcome to Thanksgiving, 21st century style.
It’s not exactly your grandparents’ Thanksgiving and it’s certainly not the First Thanksgiving, except in one respect – it’s still all about being thankful and sharing.
Abilene is filled with examples of people sharing their bounty with people outside their own family, at Thanksgiving and year-round. With international students, Dyess Air Force Base, and the International Rescue Committee in town, Abilene is a city of diverse cultures.
Inviting those newcomers to Thanksgiving dinner adds a nontraditional element to the traditional meal. Abilenians also have found other ways of making a traditional holiday a little bit nontraditional with events like “Thanksmas,” a combination of Thanksgiving and Christmas and “Friendsgiving,” a pre-Thanksgiving party for friends.
Houston and Karen Heflin regularly mentor newly arrived refugees who have been resettled in Abilene through the IRC. For Thanksgiving, the Heflins invite the family they are mentoring for dinner. On occasion, they are joined by international students from Abilene Christian University.
“It just feels like the truest way to celebrate Thanksgiving,” Karen said.
Thanksgiving at the Heflin home might include guests from Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Iraq, South Africa, Peru, or Argentina.
Just like the First Thanksgiving held in November 1621, when the newly arrived Pilgrims and the Wampanoag Indians gathered at Plymouth, the nontraditional Thanksgiving at the Heflin home is about mixing cultures over a common experience – a shared meal.
Both Houston and Karen grew up overseas. His father was government contractor and her dad was an Air Force pilot. They understand about mixing cultures and sitting down to dinner together.
They especially like the exposure that being with people of other nationalities and cultures brings to their four children, who range in age from a freshman in high school to a second-grader.
“It’s a ministry we can all do together,” Karen said.
A part of the tradition is spreading lengths of butcher paper on tables so that everyone can write down something they are thankful for. Particularly meaningful are notes from refugees. The English may not be perfect, but the message is:
“I thank for all of you…And I love all of you are family” one note read.
DINNER FOR 40…OR MORE
Zach and Kara Sheets join about 40 other members of Zach’s family on his parents’ ranch near Ovalo for “Thanksmas,” a combination of Thanksgiving and Christmas to make it easier for the nine Sheets siblings and their families to plan their own Christmas.
The gathering starts on Tuesday of Thanksgiving week and runs through the weekend. And, it’s not uncommon for non-family guests to show up.
“If you’re a person,” Zach Sheets said, “you’re welcome.”
Family members are housed in the four-bedroom main house, a two-bedroom guesthouse, bunkhouse that sleeps 20 or so, and in the barn that’s outfitted for 12. Extras sleep on pallets spread here and there.
The tradition started when Zach, the oldest was about to get married in 2004 and the family started talking about how to do future holidays with so many involved. “Thanksmas” was born. The entire time the extended family is together, they play football, watch football, go hunting and fishing, swim In the heated pool, and of course, eat.
Since the event covers two holidays, they decorate a tree, draw names for gifts, and have Christmas music going nonstop.
“Those are kind of the traditional things that happen,” Kara said.
The family also remembers a 10th sibling, Tyler, who was killed in a car wreck Dec. 21, 2006, at age 19. The ranch at Ovalo is named in his honor – The Flying T Ranch.
All the siblings are competitive, Zach said, so the holiday includes all kinds of competitions, with the cookie bake-off being a favorite. This is no friendly competition, Kara noted.
“You want to start trash-talking at least 24 hours in advance,” she said.
Zach and Kara met as students at Abilene Christian University. They home-school their four children, including a set of 10-year-old twin boys, a 6-year-old son and a 5-year-old daughter. All the family, including Zach’s parents, Kyle and Bernita Sheets, attends The Well church. Their religious beliefs show through in the Thanksgiving, even overpowering the “trash-talking.’
“In the kingdom,” Kara said, “everybody is welcome.”
‘I FEEL PROUD TO BE IN THIS COUNTRY’
Deepak Sarki is a native of Bhutan who was placed in a refugee camp in Nepal after the ethnic cleansing that took place in Bhutan in the early 1990s. Bhutanese who couldn’t prove their ancestry back far enough were expelled. Deepak was 3 when he entered the camp with his family.
Now 29, Deepak came to Abilene in 2010, also through the IRC, and now owns Little Italy Express and is a partner in two other restaurants. Deepak and his family at first were invited to the homes of members of their church, Southern Hills Church of Christ, for Thanksgiving and then started hosting the meal at home for extended family. The meal consists of traditional Thanksgiving fare, but as might be expected, a serving of lasagna also is included.
Although a holiday called “Thanksgiving Day” was new to Deepak when he arrived in the United States, he found it interesting at first and then it took on a deeper meaning.
“When you know what it means,” he said, “you start celebrating.”
Being invited to people’s homes in Abilene for the holiday was a touching experience for Deepak and his Bhutanese wife, Buddhi, who he met in Abilene. They have one son, Aditya, 10 months. Now, they are happy to host the meal and invite American friends. This year’s Thanksgiving will include a dozen or so, including Deepak’s parents, two brothers and their families and his sister and her husband, plus American friends.
Deepak is “almost there” is the process of becoming a United States citizen. He feels strongly that the holidays celebrated in his adopted country, like Thanksgiving and Christmas, should be observed.
“I think we should celebrate and respect these things,” he said. “I feel proud to be in this country.”
Jeff and Nichole Casey have a truly unusual Thanksgiving event, and it’s not even held on Thanksgiving. Instead, the “Friendsgiving” is a gathering of friends at the Casey home the Saturday before Thanksgiving.
“We just want to all get together and have potluck and celebrate our friendship and have a good time,” Nichole said.
The Caseys needn’t worry about everybody having a good time. From a bartender to a DJ to karaoke to a selfie station in front of a huge inflatable turkey, there’s something fun for all tastes.
This will be the third year for the event, which always is held in the Casey home. About 50 friends, including couples and singles from church, work, or social settings show up and bring a dish.
“It’s literally whatever they’re in the mood for, that’s what they bring,” Nichole said.
The party kicks off at 7 p.m. All the furniture is shoved out of the way to make room for dancing and mingling. TVs are on all over the house for football games, the music’s cranked and it’s “party on.”
The Casey children, two boys ages 10 and 11 and a girl age 3, are off to Jeff’s parents for the evening.
This year’s Friendsgiving will take on an added dimension. Guests are asked to make a cash donation that will be taken to the Salvation Army for a family who can’t afford their own Thanksgiving dinner.
The Caseys and their friends know they are blessed and want to share, especially at Thanksgiving. Nichole is in charge of internal controls and training for Nextera Energy’s wind farms. Jeff is chief digital officer at First Financial Bank.
“We’re excited to give back to somebody else,” Nichole said.