As I think back to the Thanksgivings of my childhood, the images are a bit blurry, though I can remember the buffet.

I wasn’t nearly as fond of food back then as I am now. I didn’t even like pumpkin or pecan pie — silly kid. There were usually black olives that wound up on 10 of my fingers. I think I liked mashed potatoes and gravy best out of what was served. I remember my grandma Bernece’s rolls and have never tasted better. When Mom asked Dad to cut the turkey, I knew we were finally going to be able to eat!

Wolery

It is a little odd to me that I can visualize table settings and the abundant buffet on the counter, but not so many specifics about who was around our table for those holiday meals. Perhaps the few extra guests at Thanksgiving didn’t stand out, because it wasn’t unusual to have a dozen around our table on any given day. I may have taken the many people who attended holiday gatherings for granted.

Every once in a while, we went to my mom’s side of the family for Thanksgiving. I remember thinking it wasn’t as fun. There weren’t any cousins our age on that side. Mom’s relatives were just a little stranger than we were, or at least I thought so at the time. Now I realize it was just that I didn’t know them as well. I grew up with so much of my dad’s side around me on a regular basis that they felt more familiar. Plus being in my own home was more comfortable.

During the Thanksgiving holiday, you may be concerned about your own comfort level or you may find yourself around a table with people who are “stranger” than you. You may even be a little worried about conversation topics and behavior. I think it can be useful to set expectations or ground rules ahead of time.

Perhaps your rules could include topics that are on the “naughty list” such as politics, religion or anyone’s children or lack thereof. It might also be good to steer clear of couple relationships. You may even want some expectations about language and subjects.

You could put side rails on conversations by having a few pre-planned topics. I like good conversation starters — those random questions everyone can answer. I have purchased game boxes of conversation starters and my family has enjoyed learning things about each other and the guests we host.

One question that sticks out for me is, “If you were an animal, what would you be and why?” My father-in-law answered that he’d probably be a dog like a Labrador retriever. All he needed was a family to care for and feed him and he’d be happy to hang around and love them in return. My husband said he’d be a bear, so he could sleep part of the year and hunt the rest!

“Real Simple” magazine has 31 fun conversation starters on its web page and you’ll easily find lists if you look around the Internet. If you have kids at your table, you could ask them who the funniest person is at the table and why. If you have older guests, you could ask which decade of their lives would they would most like to live again and why?

Of course, I think the key to happy holidays is creating your own traditions and being flexible. My daughters fondly remember that when they were young, I refused to host or travel. We stayed home and did a very relaxed home “spa day” and ate popcorn and pumpkin cheesecake. While not as nutritionally balanced as the banquet of my youth, the food was memorable just the same. Last year, I had most of Thanksgiving Day to myself and made some light appetizers that took about 20 minutes to prepare. We did the big meal the next day, but I found this note to myself in my calendar, “I spent two hours grocery shopping and eight hours in the kitchen. The meal lasted 45 minutes and wasn’t that great.” We might be back to popcorn this year!

If the shopping, cleaning, cooking, conversations, traveling or hosting the holidays is causing you a little anxiety, maybe permission to do it differently will appeal to you. Whatever you do, plan some time to practice gratitude for your own frame of mind.

You can “frame” or communicate clear expectations and plan some tame topics for the day. That way everyone can be thankful they were together and not just thankful when they left!