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After the Fires: Celebrating Thanksgiving When Homes are Lost or Damaged

By Sally Weber MSW and Rabbi Paul Kipnes

The California fires destroyed hundreds of homes, and left thousands of people with houses that may not be inhabitable until after Thanksgiving. If our home still suffers the effects of the fires, how do we celebrate our traditional Thanksgiving feast? Finding a way to retain the ritual in the midst of change is challenging. But with patience, persistence and open conversation, we can create a meaningful celebration nonetheless.

We are a people deeply tied to rituals. Rituals affirm our identity, provide structure to our lives, and they have meaning to us as individuals, families and communities. Every time we participate in a ritual, we are expressing our beliefs and our values. If our rituals don’t happen, we feel like something is missing.

Ritual changes can create tension

We are often a bit rigid in our rituals, saying: “This is the way my mother/father/family always made it!” This is how we always did it.” “This is the way we’re supposed to do it.” Sometimes that stands us in good stead. Even in difficult times, we know what to do and when to do it (light the candles, read the bedtime story, recite the Haggadah). When circumstances out of our control affect our ability to hold our rituals in our usual way, we can become distraught.

So when life intervenes – like fires destroying homes or forcing a loved one to be absent – what happens to the ritual?

This year, Thanksgiving rituals will be changing for many families. Not necessarily forever. But certainly this year. Homes where families gathered may be damaged or lost. Cooking special holiday dishes for large groups may be challenging in homes still to be cleansed of the ash and toxins. Where to gather (“we never go to a restaurant on Thanksgiving!”) may become a cause for dissension.

We advise flexibility

Rigid rituals break; they don’t bend. But the intent of rituals is to carry on the meaning of our values, our family, and our identity. Rituals at their best are resilient. And while change often includes loss as well as growth, by being flexible this year, we can maintain the meaning of our Thanksgiving rituals. Even if we have to let go of some of the aspects we’ve always considered essential.

Four Questions for this Thanksgiving

As you approach Thanksgiving this year, ask yourselves:

  1. What are some of the most important aspects of Thanksgiving for us and our family?
  • Is it: the food, the family, the company,
  • Just knowing we are all going to be together again, or…?

2.  Are we going to be able to celebrate Thanksgiving in our traditional way? If not, what has to change:

  • The location: is the home where we celebrate Thanksgiving not available this year due to damage or loss? Are there other participants who can host it? And if not, might we be spending the holiday elsewhere, like going to other friends or to a restaurant (it’s OK, it’s who you’re with that matters!)? Might we have a smaller get together?
  • The menu: Do participants usually bring special dishes and, if so, are there some who won’t be able to this year? What else can they do instead (like bring flowers, wine or a store-bought pie? Does one person primarily do the cooking and, if so, is that still possible this year? If not, how can others help? Is catering or take-out out of the question?
  • The participants: Will some regular participants leave town for the holiday if their homes are damaged or destroyed? How will we acknowledge their empty chairs? Are there friends – or strangers – who need a place at a Thanksgiving table? If so, how will we welcome them into our traditions?

3.  How will the children respond to a different Thanksgiving?

  • A change in rituals can be very difficult for children who crave predictability but are also very resilient. Sometimes, we don’t have a clue about which rituals are important to them. So if there are changes this year, involve the children.
  • Tell them what the changes will be and listen to them. Ask: What’s most important to you and what do you look forward to the most? Engage them in either how to make this happen or ideas they have if it can’t happen.
  • Ask: Who do you want to sit next to this year? Can you make that happen?
  • Try to make certain favorite foods are there – hopefully there are several favorite foods and you can make sure that one of them is on the table!
  • Be patient with comments like “I don’t like it, it’s not how we usually do it.” It probably isn’t. But this year is a transition—back to what was or forward to the new Thanksgiving rituals you will be creating.

4.  Most importantly, how are YOU feeling about the changes?

  • What do you want to make certain happens?
  • What do you most regret giving up or changing this year?
  • Are there things about your Thanksgiving celebration you have always (secretly) wanted to change?

Opportunity to recreate rituals

Remember that change does not necessarily mean discarding valued rituals. It might be instead an opportunity to recreate, based upon a combination of realistic options and also a little time spent discussing what can continue to bring meaning to a holiday based upon friendship, family, togetherness and, of course, food. In a crazy way, this Thanksgiving can be an opportunity, in the midst of trauma and dislocation, to explore what something that’s been taken for granted really means and how to make certain that its meaning in your household remains secure.

No matter where we are, or who we are with, or what new aspects of our Thanksgiving ritual have evolved, we all can take time to offer a prayer of gratitude for new or unusual experiences. For Jews, we can recite Shehecheyanu:

Baruch Atah Adonay Eloheynu Melech ha’olam, shehecheyanu, v’kiyimanu, v’higiyanu lazman hazeh.
You are Blessed, Our God, who has kept us in life and sustained us, enabling us to reach this season.



Other ways to create a meaningful Thanksgiving:

10 Ideas for a Spiritual Thanksgiving

7 Reasons why Thanksgiving is Deeply Spiritual

Why I am Thankful this Thanksgiving


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