“The First Family Thanksgiving”

The First Family Thanksgiving,” The Root, 24 November 2008.


Being elected leader of the Free World—now there’s something to give thanks for!

Intense national interest in your feelings about cranberry sauce, not so much.

You win some, you lose some. As the Obamas enter the holiday season as first family-in-waiting, Americans are eager for insight into their celebrations. After all, how they spend Turkey Day may give us a sense of the style, rituals and traditions they will bring to the White House.

“Traditionally, he’s been spending Thanksgiving in Chicago with his family and friends,” says Al Kindle, a field operator for Obama this year and in his 2000 race against Rep. Bobby Rush. “He likes to read, and he likes to hang out with the girls.”

In years past, that’s meant a potluck dinner with Michelle’s folks in Chicago. (Christmases have usually been spent in Hawaii with Obama’s grandmother, Madelyn Dunham, and half sister, Maya Soetoro-Ng. Plans this year may depend on the scheduling of a private memorial service for Dunham, who passed away just before Election Day.)

This year, some sixty guests are slated to join the Obamas at their Hyde Park residence, a bittersweet celebration that will provide friends and associates a last chance at hometown fun before the work of moving–and governing–begins.

The University of Chicago Laboratory School, Malia and Sasha’s soon-to-be-former academic home, gives students a three-day Thanksgiving break from classes. But individual classrooms may put on a holiday party or class performance (when I attended the Lab School, re-enactments of the Mayflower landing were de rigeur).

Hyde Park, the Chicago neighborhood where Obama will pass this Thursday, tends to celebrate in a communal fashion. The Obamas have frequently attended the annual Thanksgiving Day service at University of Chicago’s historic Rockefeller Chapel. Chicago Alderman Toni Preckwinkle, who counts the Obamas as constituents, says the multicultural, interfaith gathering features songs and seasonal readings on thanks and is well-attended by the neighborhood’s melting pot of students, faculty and residents.

“When he was a state senator, he came almost every year,” said Rabbi emeritus Arnold Wolf, whose synagogue sits across the street from the Obamas’ house. “Of course, now that’s all over, which is a shame.”

Farther south, Trinity United Church of Christ (yes, that one) has for years held an Umoja Karamu performance worship service, celebrating the harvest with 15-foot puppets dressed in African attire. It’s a great service for kids, church members say. But the congregation is not counting on seeing the first family, after Obama’s very public split in May with the church and its former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright.

The big unknown is who cooks the bird. Michelle is on record as saying that she’s not exactly in love with the culinary arts. “I’m not somebody who has to cook,” she told CBS’s “Early Show” in October. “If there is somebody else who has got a good meal, we’re there!” Maybe new granny-in-chief Marian Robinson, Michelle’s mother, will do the honors.

Last Thanksgiving, candidate Obama and campaign workers packed and loaded food donations for needy families at a New Hampshire soup kitchen. “A lot of them come in to get the photo op,” said Kevin Kintner, who runs the shelter in the primary state Obama narrowly lost two months later, “but he came in and really worked.”

Desiree Rogers, the Chicago businesswoman and Obama friend recently named the new White House Social Secretary, plans to bring her unique touch to future celebrations. “Ideally of course you have ideas for something grand,” she said. “But who knows what Thanksgiving might look like a year from now.”

In his 1995 memoir, Dreams from My Father, Obama recalls one particularly gloomy holiday in 1987: “The day before Thanksgiving, Harold Washington died,” he wrote. “The black radio stations played Harold’s speeches, hour after hour, trying to summon the dead … everywhere black people appeared dazed, stricken, uncertain of direction, frightened of the future.”

In these tough economic times, fear of the future may color many holiday gatherings. Since this may be the Obama family’s last Thanksgiving in their Chicago home for a while, it would be nice to think the president-elect could plop down on the couch with some sweet potato pie (his favorite), watch a game, and rest up for the challenges that lie ahead.

Dayo Olopade

One thought on ““The First Family Thanksgiving”

  1. Hello Dayo –

    My wife and I just saw your interview on C-Span and I would like to comment that you did a fantastic job.
    Having grown up in Nigeria but born in London, the kinship is obvious.

    Good luck in the future.

    Dapo Arogundade
    Springfield, IL

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