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Why Be a Thanksgiving “Orphan”?

“What are you doing for Thanksgiving?” It’s usually an innocent question this time of year, meant to just make conversation. It is bandied about at work, among the parents picking up their kids at school or when talking to friends. “What are you doing?” For those who have places to go, it’s a simple enough question to answer. Whether or not they are looking forward to the yearly stuff-yourself-day with relatives, they know what they are doing and probably just how it’s going to be. (Yearly family events do tend to repeat themselves.)

But for those who either can’t or don’t want to be with family, the question can become a regular reminder of disappointment, negative emotions and/or loneliness; of being an “outsider” when it seems like the whole nation is celebrating a glorious and gluttonous feast day with extended family. The term Thanksgiving Orphan that has come into use in the last decades only highlights that Oliver Twist feeling.

The noun “orphan” means someone whose parents have both died. It conjures up feelings of sadness and loss. It’s important to remember that there are many good, legitimate, sensible reasons that people can’t live out that Norman Rockwell iconic painting. For some, it’s disappointing but not devastating to have to forego the turkey with family this year. Family is just too far away, it’s too expensive to go, or people can’t get the days off.

For others, the day is painful enough without characterizing them as “orphans”. For those who have been rejected, unloved, or abandoned by family who won’t or can’t offer love and support, the emphasis on family that permeates the holiday is especially difficult. Some families are so toxic, addicted and/or generally dysfunctional that gathering together is a recipe for yet another day of disappointment and resentment.


A newer term, thankfully, is Friendsgiving. That’s so much friendlier. It honors the fact that families are as much made as born; that many people have created a friend group that is loving and nurturing and there for each other. “Friendsgiving” invokes a promise of a good time, not an image of aloneness and loss. A Friendsgiving isn’t a replay of Oliver Twist. It’s a celebration of friendship and families of the heart.

If you’ve been in mourning for the family you have lost or the family you never had; if you find the whole of November depressing and sad; if you are wishing you could just skip over all the reminders of the fourth Thursday in November; then it’s time to give yourself the gift of a Thanksgiving Makeover. You can transform the day from a disappointing Thanksgiving to a celebratory Friendsgiving. It’s not too late.

Transforming Turkey Day

Give yourself a shift in attitude if need be. A Friendsgiving is not a second-best Thanksgiving. You are entitled to define your idea of family. Lacking blood relatives does not mean lacking “family”. Good friends, even supportive acquaintances, count.

If you’re not able to host a Friendsgiving:

Look for one. Let friends know that you would love an invitation. Your friends may have assumed that you were planning a day with family so haven’t asked you. If there’s nobody you feel comfortable asking, look for other options. may have a notice of a group. Many churches and community services have Thanksgiving dinners. Yes, you could attend and simply eat and run. Or you could talk to the people at your table and see if you have more in common than your desire for turkey. With openness to the experience, you may find some potential new friends..

If you are able to host a Friendsgiving:

Invite: Invite friends and encourage them to bring others who are without family. Invite acquaintances who are alone – that elderly couple down the street; the single mom on your hall; the person you chat with every week at the laundromat.  If you have adult kids encourage them to bring anyone they know who hasn’t somewhere to go. Some of my best memories of Thanksgiving are of times when more than half of the people there were new to me.

Do know your own limits. I’ve had as many as 25 folks at our table but a mob is not required. You want to have a good time, not to feel overwhelmed. If 2 people feels like enough to you, it’s enough.

Share the work: Hosting does not mean doing it all. In fact, being asked to bring something gives everyone a way to contribute. Dietary preferences and restrictions are finessed by asking folks to bring what they most need or want to eat. A potluck ensures that everyone will be happy.

Don’t stress about making it perfect: If you don’t care that the forks don’t match, chances are no one else will either. If paper plates work better for you, so be it. The focus is on the company – and the food – not the tableware or seating.

Rein in expectations: Some of the new folks may become real friends who will share in your life in the future. Others will only share in the day. Enjoy each person for who they are in the moment.

Do take a moment to feel and express gratitude:  Research shows that those who express gratitude are happier and healthier than those who don’t. It may feel corny to make a ritual of it but turkey day is, after all, a day of Thanksgiving. Take a moment in the day to ask people to think about and share something, anything, they are thankful for. And thank yourself and everyone for making the day one of sharing.

Regardless of the reasons you aren’t able or willing to be with your birth family this holiday season, there is no reason to be alone, much less lonely. Thanksgiving or Friendsgiving is a celebration of being part of a community and being thankful for whatever we are thankful for. Join up with some friends who are already making a meal or make one of your own. There’s still time.

Why Be a Thanksgiving “Orphan”?

Marie Hartwell-Walker, Ed.D.

Dr. Marie Hartwell-Walker is licensed as both a psychologist and marriage and family counselor. She specializes in couples and family therapy and parent education. She writes regularly for Psych Central as well as Psych Central's Ask the Therapist feature. She is author of the insightful parenting e-book, Tending the Family Heart. Check out her book, Unlocking the Secrets of Self-Esteem.

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APA Reference
Hartwell-Walker, M. (2018). Why Be a Thanksgiving “Orphan”?. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 28, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 15 Nov 2017)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.