Today, at least 24 friends will enter Ken Keith's sprawling apartment bearing such dishes as homemade cranberry relish, green beans almondine, creamed onions, brussels sprouts and pumpkin pies fresh from a bakery.

They will gather by 3:59 p.m. -- "no later," instructed the host -- for the traditional Thanksgiving dinner at Rutland Courts, a cooperative apartment building at 1725 17th St. NW.

It's turkey dinner for the people who don't have enough annual leave or money to fly home for the day; for single friends who would rather share a meal than eat alone; for elderly residents who are short on family but long on holiday cheer. Most of all, at Rutland Courts, where a family-style Thanksgiving dinner has become a tradition for a decade, it's a day to share with friends who seem like family.

"I was brought up with large Thanksgivings and always liked the tradition," said Keith, who is originally from Evanston, Ill.

In this age when families are scattered, when young people have left the old home in search of their own, Thanksgiving traditions are changing. More often now the new "family" is friends, because "home" is most likely the city that offers a good-paying job.

"There is a sense of the loss of community . . . . Being part of something larger than yourself is important," said Robert Hirzel, associate professor of sociology at the University of Maryland. "The great teaching of Thanksgiving is that we celebrate being a part of something, a country, a family.

"People bend and make every effort to get home," he said. "Today, when that can't always happen, people are creating their families."

At Rutland Courts, the atmosphere of family abides throughout the year. There are summer barbecues in the front yard, potluck dinners and evening parties on the roof.

Dinner is at 4 p.m. today. Keith has told others that if their plans don't work out, they can join the group as late as 3:59 p.m. Guests will sit at six card tables in a living room that has been cleared of nearly all other furniture. On each table: real china, real silver and a candle.

"One year I tried to use longer tables and put some people in the dining room and some in the living room," said the 45-year-old financial consultant. "It doesn't work. Everybody wants to be together."

With a full team effort, all Keith had to do to prepare for Thanksgiving was to buy candles, set up tables, borrow a few chairs, assign dishes and buy and make plans to cook a 26-pound turkey. Because it's the first time he's cooked a turkey, he spent Saturday cooking what he called "a practice chicken."

There are plenty of turkey stories at Rutland Courts. Jean Snellings, a resident recuperating from a broken hip this year, cooked two turkeys one Thanksgiving, using ovens in two apartments.

"While I was in one apartment checking on that turkey, another person took the first turkey out of the oven and put it in a microwave," she recalled, laughing. "I was so mad! I was going to cook the turkey this year, but I've been spared."

Snellings, who will instead bring frosted fruit slices, remembers group dinners in the building dating to 1977. At one such dinner, she said, she earned the reputation as "the woman who made the fatal Irish coffees."

"A woman passed out in the bathroom after drinking one," said Snellings, whose two daughters will join the dinner this year. "She had been drinking bourbon and wine to help her cook. Still, the lethal Irish coffee has never been served again."

Last year, Barbara Spath came with a 93-year-old friend in a wheelchair. "We had people there ages 19 to 93," Spath said. "It's important to have my extended family."

For Mark Silinsky, the joy of company is just one of the reasons he prefers the group dinner. "I never do Thanksgiving at my house because I'm too lazy," said Silinsky, a native of North Hollywood, Calif.

Kerry Kemp won't go home to Maine because she visited there recently and because her parents are in Florida looking at condominiums. "Everyone in our family is scattered now," said Kemp, who plans to come with her sister, a college sophomore in Maine, and two dishes, one of green beans almondine and another of creamed onions.

Although Joanna Cameron has moved from Rutland Courts, she lived there for a decade and is returning for today's "ongoing tradition," she said. "I was told to bring yams or sweet potatoes, so I'm bringing brussels sprouts. They suffer an image problem and I'm hoping to change that.

"The man I live with, Harvey Smith, will come, too," said Cameron, who is from England. "He has been accepted into the fold. This dinner is a family affair and people bring relatives and pick up orphans."

At the relatively young age of 67, Bernice Ulmer may be the oldest guest at this year's dinner. She has passed 40 years at Rutland Courts. During her younger years, she spent evenings and weekends out, enjoying the city. She knew few of her neighbors then, she said.

But time has changed all of that. Now she is retired, her family consists of one brother, and she enjoys dinners and visits with friends in the building.

"Thanksgiving is still a big holiday," said Ulmer, who will bring celery to today's dinner. "For me it is a time to count my blessings. Sometimes we forget how blessed we are."

As per Rutland Courts tradition, after the last plate has been passed and the last person has been served, leftovers will be shared with those who couldn't make it. Said Keith, "We know the people in the building who are shut-ins and we send them a paper plate loaded with food."