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Friendsgiving: because friends are the new family

How Friendsgiving season eclipsed Turkey Day.

Sarah Lawrence for Vox
Rebecca Jennings is a senior correspondent covering social platforms and the creator economy. Since joining Vox in 2018, her work has explored the rise of TikTok, internet aesthetics, and the pursuit of money and fame online. You can sign up for her biweekly Vox Culture newsletter here.

Sara Reinis, a 26-year-old creative strategist at Vox Media, held her first Friendsgiving last year at her apartment in Brooklyn. Between 30 and 40 people showed up to the potluck, multiple of whom brought dishes from the Whole Foods hot bar. The centerpiece? A cake with icing that read, “Gobble gobble, bitch.”

“On the spectrum of ‘typical house party’ to ‘formal Thanksgiving’ it was like, right in the middle,” she says. “The mood was, ‘What if instead of Tostitos, people brought mashed potatoes and pies?’”

The evening was a success, clearly — while some people stayed to help clean up, others went out dancing, and Sara even ended up with a collection of new dishware that people neglected to pick up.

“It can be very rare in New York to get together and eat home-cooked food,” she adds. “So it felt very intimate and cozy the whole evening — even though it was pretty crowded and rowdy at times.”

This weekend, parties like Sara’s will be happening countrywide. Over the past half-decade or so, the week before Thanksgiving has been widely understood as a glorious reprieve before the obligations of actual Thanksgiving, which can range from multi-hour cross-country flights to having to explain who Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is to your great-uncle. In contrast, Friendsgiving season is a time to just hang out with your usual crew and eat slightly more calories’ worth of autumnal food than normal.

While the concept of celebrating Thanksgiving with friends isn’t exactly new, “Friendsgiving” is. A Merriam-Webster investigation notes that the first usage of the term in print or online was in 2007, in posts on both Usenet and Twitter — and no, it wasn’t because of Friends (even though that would have made a lot of sense).

A scene from a Thanksgiving episode of Friends (the one where Chandler’s in a box).
Paul Drinkwater/NBC/Getty Images

Instead, Merriam-Webster argues that what shot “Friendsgiving” into the national consciousness was the double-whammy of a 2011 Bailey’s Irish Cream ad campaign and, rather hilariously, an episode of The Real Housewives of New Jersey that aired that same year, in which Teresa hosts a Friendsgiving of her own (this, from the show in which practically every episode someone repeats the idiom “blood is thicker than water”).

In 2013 BuzzFeed declared 17 whole rules for Friendsgiving, and in 2014, the tradition got the Washington Post styles section treatment. Back then, the Post described it as something for the lingering “island of misfit toys” who couldn’t or wouldn’t travel the distance to see their families. It also seemed to be particularly popular in cities: “I think D.C. is the kind of town where there are a lot of people who are from somewhere else, and sometimes friends aren’t able to go home,” one Friendsgiving-goer said.

Another offered a different explanation: “I like that I can drink. If I was back with the family, they frown on it. And then you have to drive home.”

There are, of course, other rather scientific explanations for the rise of Friendsgiving. Stephanie Coontz, the director of public education at the Council on Contemporary Families explains that the rising age at which people get married contributes to friendships playing a more significant role in people’s lives.

Back in the ’50s and ’60s, she explained to The Goods, “many marital advice books emphasized how important it was for a wife to make her husband her first priority at all times and not to let girlish friendships interfere with her duties and devotion to her husband.” Meanwhile, because marriage tends to happen much later these days, people place more importance on a network of friends rather than the traditional nuclear family.

“Many have also seen what happens when people who haven’t maintained those networks get divorced,” Coontz adds. “So they are also conscious of the need to work on their friendships.” That can translate into spending holidays with friends — either instead of with family, or in addition to it.

“For the most part I just think that people have decided to expand their definition of family-like relations,” she says. And there’s an important benefit that comes with Friendsgiving: “No one feels compelled to invite an unsupportive or obnoxious friend the way they often feel pressured to include an unsupportive or obnoxious family member.”

A piece this week in the Atlantic, however, suggests that Friendsgiving is actually a bleak harbinger of millennials’ financial doom. Ashley Fetters writes:

Malcolm Harris, meanwhile — the author of the book Kids These Days: Human Capital and the Making of Millennials — sees something darker at work in the “Friendsgiving” phenomenon. Harris thinks affixing the “cutesy” label of Friendsgiving onto a scraped-together, potluck-style event popular among Millennials that will never actually rival the lavish spreads of real Thanksgiving implies approval by the powers that be of Millennial adults’ lower income and lower living standards compared to prior generations. “Friendsgiving,” he says, “is a propaganda weapon used by the ruling class to further their plans for wage stagnation.”

Woof! In slightly less bleak (but still pretty bleak) news, the current conversation around Friendsgiving revolves around men, despite presumably being aware of the shitty optics, not offering to help clean up after the meal. A letter-writer to Slate’s Dear Prudence column this week asked what to do when only the female guests help out with the cleaning while the dudes sit around drinking beer. The answer? Be “cheerfully” direct, and “don’t be afraid to name a conspicuous dynamic.”

As for Sara’s 2017 Friendsgiving party, however, the problem wasn’t the dishes: It was wiping the mashed potatoes off the wall the next day.

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