Welcome to Friendsgiving, the holiday you choose with the people you choose. Bring whatever you want — a favorite dish from your family, or just a bottle of wine. Wear whatever you want. Spend time with people you love without slogging through crowded airports or reopening old family wounds. It doesn’t matter if your stuffing tastes exactly like Grandma’s because no one there has tasted your grandma’s stuffing. It doesn’t matter if there’s stuffing at all, or if it’s even on Thanksgiving.
Though Friendsgiving started out as a Thanksgiving alternative — a thing friends do when they can’t travel to their families — for many it has become as much of a tradition as the one it first stood in for.
Young people have been celebrating Friendsgiving long before there was a word for it. “It just felt like a thing we should do,” Charles Crain said of the first Thanksgiving dinner he hosted for friends when he was a freshman at Mercer University in 2005. “We watched ‘Friends’ all the time, and they always had a big Thanksgiving episode. We were just inventing our own thing in our own way.” Thanksgiving was his family’s biggest holiday, so now that he was on his own, he wanted to bring his friends together before everyone dispersed to their families.
Shortly after that first gathering, Crain came out as gay — and many of his friends from that original Friendsgiving did, too. In 2009, he moved to Washington and continued hosting his dinner, which has become known as Big Gay Thanksgiving. Now that BGT’s attendees are in their 30s, the celebration looks different than it did in college: There are infants and toddlers in attendance. Crain, now a 32-year-old lobbyist for the manufacturing industry, picks a date months in advance — it’s always on a Saturday in November. Every fall, he’ll scrutinize the guest list and ask himself: Do I know this person well enough to add them to BGT? He’ll ask friends whether their new partners are ready to join, or: Will they run away screaming, thinking we’re crazy?
Crain’s BGT is more formal than many actual Thanksgivings. He sends out paper invitations with a turkey decked out in rainbow feathers. And Crain takes a few days off work every year to cook before the dinner. One of his college friends flies up from Atlanta and the crew gets the weekend started with a “girls' night out” on Friday. “You build your communities and you want to celebrate special things with them,” Crain says, likening BGT to the way friends might celebrate one another’s weddings and birthdays.
This year’s gathering had more than 40 people squeezed into the two-bedroom Columbia Heights condo Crain shares with his fiance, Rich. To keep things organized, Crain has a few rules: He cooks everything, guests are only allowed to bring wine — and you must come on time. “It’s taken on a life of its own,” Crain said.
Sort of like the holiday itself. It’s unclear how Friendsgiving got its name. It wasn’t called that when the “Friends” characters celebrated together every year from 1994 to 2004, but real celebrations can look a lot like those gatherings of 20-something friends who lived in the same apartment building and became one another’s family. According to Merriam-Webster, “Friendsgiving” first popped up in print in 2007, when the term appeared in Usenet posts and on Twitter, however it was probably floating around in spoken English before that. Kelsey Miller, author of the book “I’ll Be There for You: The One About Friends,” confirms that the sitcom didn’t create the holiday. “We have these things that we’ve been doing for a long time, but we didn’t have a cute name for them,” Miller says.
A 2014 essay on McSweeney’s tells a fictional tale of the first Friendsgiving, dating from the financial crisis of 2008, when a group of disillusioned millennials in Los Angeles who were barely scraping by in the gig economy couldn’t afford plane tickets home for Thanksgiving. And so they celebrated together. Chris Brotzman writes: “They knew this whole thing was merely a coping mechanism for their own, deep-seated unhappiness: Lost in a strange place, much like the Pilgrims of the first Thanksgiving, starving for acceptance from strangers. The main difference, of course, is that the original Pilgrims were also literally starving. Like, for food and medicine and stuff.”
Though his essay was satirical, Brotzman has strong Friendsgiving traditions. Much like in the 1990s sitcom, his first Friendsgiving consisted of a group of pals who lived in the same building in Chicago’s Old Town neighborhood. It has ranged from four people going to a restaurant and ordering off the Thanksgiving menu to renting out the common area in a friend’s condo building, hiring a bartender and really doing it up.
He likes that the holiday showcases young adults' willingness to cook for their friends. When people bring their favorite family dishes, you get a taste of another family’s Thanksgiving, he says. And without older generations around, he feels freer to improvise.
“You can run your own Thanksgiving without stepping on Grandma’s toes, and it’s a chance to start creating your own traditions,” Brotzman says. “Maybe you do tacos … and fish tacos becomes a thing you do for Friendsgiving.”
Friendsgiving has attained the true marker of an American holiday — not recognition from Congress, but from capitalism. Bailey’s Irish Cream has used the term in ad campaigns. Taco Bell has a Friendsgiving menu and sells “Happy Friendsgiving” sweaters. Izze, the fizzy beverage, has served up Friendsgiving planning ideas on Instagram, linking consumers directly to Amazon to buy their products. (Jeffrey P. Bezos owns Amazon and The Washington Post.)
Megan O’Byrne and Jennifer Molayem’s devotion to Friendsgiving is so deep that their law school crew spends months planning for it. Every year on Veterans Day weekend, about a dozen friends in their 30s gather in a different city, don matching T-shirts designed specifically for the event, and vote on where the following year’s Friendsgiving will be. This year was Philadelphia; next up is Mexico City. There’s a housing committee that chooses an Airbnb, and there are strict rules on how strong a relationship must be before you can invite a plus-one. If you were to spot them in their matching T-shirts, you’d probably think they were at a family reunion or a mixed-gender bachelor party.
Nicole Widmar, a professor of agricultural economics at Purdue University, has also been celebrating Friendsgiving for over a decade now, starting when she was in graduate school. “It’s all the things you like about the holiday except the stressful parts,” Widmar says, adding that with friends, you can avoid any political tensions or “off-limits topics of conversation” that can exist within extended families.
Once Widmar and her husband and 4-year-old return from their Thanksgiving travel, they’re hosting a Friendsgiving for colleagues and graduate students. It’s the same concept as her first Friendsgiving in 2006, she says — but “it’s none of the same people.”