Zahra Virani

My family has no shortage of zany traditions for just about every holiday. Our oddness piques around the Thanksgiving table.

Usually, we spend thanksgiving in Chicago. One year, we spent Thanksgiving in California visiting my grandfather, where we substituted turkey for fresh fish and football for swimming. No one liked this very much, and a nasty sunburn really killed my mood. The palm trees and spray tans killed the vibe. It was fun, but we were all excited to get back to our classic Chicago festivities, resplendent with hats, frozen fingers and pink noses. 

We start the day with our immediate families. At home, the kitchen becomes an industrial bakery and we produce five or six batches of cranberry bread, making miniature loaves for family, friends and neighbors. Our wages are limited to whatever spills from the Kitchenaid, which — under my sister’s watchful eye — is very little. The counter goes from brown to white with flour and batter sticks to our fingertips. It’s also the first day of the year that my mother will allow my dad to put on Christmas music, so the whole production is to the tune of Alabama’s entire holiday album. 

Next, we head to my aunt’s house for football and dinner preparations. I’m the proud all-time rusher in these games.

Finally, when we sit down to dinner, our most unique tradition comes out of the woodwork. We play a round of the alphabet game, where we go around the table and say something we are grateful for in alphabetical order, repeating every item listed before stating our next addition.

Without the alphabet game, I would never realize that I take quails, quinces and question marks for granted. Plus, annually expressing our family’s immense gratitude for Yaks has never failed to get a laugh out of me.

Until it became tedious. 

I, the youngest in the family, am now 18, and the game does not get more fun as you reach adulthood, even though my cousins and I may still be at the proverbial kids’ table. It’s a drag. The game takes longer and longer to complete. Our aged, shrinking brains have become less and less creative. We don’t appreciate creative choices, but we do appreciate whispered jokes.

Even my dad gets bored of it. Last year, I asked why. He explained that it was important to my aunt’s family that we played and they treasured every year’s list of gratitude. When I asked my cousins and my aunt, though, I received a very different explanation. They also were growing tired of the game, but admitted that they had to continue to play because it was important to my immediate family. We had entered a vicious cycle.

This all seemed a bit suspicious to me. I started to poke around and try to find out how this whole tradition started and evolved. After much scrupulous detective work, I determined that no one really knows why we play, let alone who introduced the game to the table. 

My cousins and I commiserate over the dreaded alphabet game, but a secret part of me is grateful that we keep playing it. It’s almost like trauma bonding. It makes our Thanksgiving dinner unlike anyone else’s — that I know of — and gives us an opportunity to laugh together. Plus, it gets the kids’ table and the adults’ table communicating beyond “pass the potatoes.” 

The tradition has become a little cringeworthy, but I’ve come to realize that it was never supposed to be trendy or whatnot. The tradition doesn’t have to be fun for it to be important. We just need to do it every year. The beauty of the tradition comes from this consistency, not from its poetic nature or a meaningful origin story. 

The alphabet game makes for some real gems, too. This year, after a request to amend the game to just “the vowel game” was rejected, we reluctantly expressed our communal gratitude for ovals, lemons, salt and tequila. And quinces, too.

Unfortunately for all the future Calkins, I’ll probably carry on the tradition as long as I can spell.