David Lauderdale

What we really feast on at Thanksgiving: Family and tradition

Marshall Duke is a psychology professor who likes to give a talk called "The Thanksgiving Tuna and Other Traditional American Rituals."

It was spawned by his casual chats with people on the beaches of Hilton Head Island. Under the guise of a nutty professor, Duke takes great pleasure in quizzing strangers about their Thanksgiving traditions.

He found that a number of people celebrate Thanksgiving on Friday for one reason or another. But at the head of his class is the family he talked to on the beach whose tradition is to bake a whole tuna for Thanksgiving dinner. They best illustrate something that the clinical psychologist who has taught at Emory University in Atlanta for more than three decades has documented in his professional research involving hundreds of families.

"It's not the day that matters," Duke said. "It's not even the food. It's actually the gathering that matters, and that's where the power is. There's great strength in that."

For Marshall and Sara Duke, this will be the 34th year their family has gathered on Hilton Head for Thanksgiving. They've always come for Thanksgiving week with another couple and everyone's full families, which this year will total 22 people and three generations.

Like so many other families, they long all year for their week of peace and quiet, of playing on the beach and riding bikes.

But the Duke and Stephen Nowicki families are a bit different in other ways.

Early on, Sara Duke added rituals to the week. They would buy their frozen turkey and Thanksgiving trimmings at Gene Martin's Red and White supermarket, then hide it all in the palmettos and pine straw. A family ritual was born with the festive hunting and gathering of the food.

They reenact the landing at Plymouth Rock, arriving on driftwood and yelling, "Land ho!"

They create Native American-inspired crafts. They have a fishing contest. And they have a week-long Survivor Hilton Head Competition, with bandanas identifying teams competing in beach football, sand-castle building or the shell-toss.

"Lots of things pull families apart -- work, carpools, activities, all kinds of things," Duke said. "Family rituals give consistency and stability to lives, especially the children."

His life's work grew out of his experiences on Hilton Head.

His research at Emory's Myth and Ritual in American Life Center has documented that, "statistically speaking, families that extend real effort to counteract the forces that pull them apart have better adjusted children who tend to do better in school and to avoid drugs and delinquency, better functioning families, kids with higher levels of self-confidence and with stronger senses of who they are."

His daughter, Sharon Duke Estroff, now writes, speaks and consults nationally on family challenges that didn't exist when she was an 8-year-old in the back of the station wagon on that first trip to Hilton Head.

As a mother of four, ages 8 to 18, Estroff can speak about the new "appendages" -- cell phones, iPads and computers. She tackles it in her 2007 book, "Can I Have a Cell Phone for Hanukkah?" She talks turkey about online social networking sites for grade-schoolers in her "Undercover Mommy" blog at her website, www.sharonestroff.com.

In her latest blog at Huffington Post, Estroff writes that, "Thanksgiving after Thanksgiving, my family returned to Hilton Head, weaving a legacy as seemingly rich and alive as that of the historical barrier island itself." She says families need those rituals more than ever in "a rocket-paced, anxiety-ridden, unpredictable 21st-century world."

Her father believes that's just the point. The goofy rituals and laid-back story-telling teach children that no matter what they hear about the world or how horrible things seem, it will be OK. They taste stability. They have a touchstone. They know they don't have to swim upstream alone.