Urban Tribes & Orphan Thanksgiving: Family Is What You Make of It

Sometime back, I read a book called “Urban Tribes” by Ethan Watters. The book had a profound effect on me, and I came to realize that it was very relevant to my living situation. In a nutshell, the book is about the development of social circles, comparing the more family oriented circles of the past with the more friend oriented circles of the present. In the past, the book posits, a person was expected to finish school, get a job, get married, and raise a family, pretty much in that order and with no gaps between. Nowadays, it’s more common for people to put off the getting married and raising a family portions of that model. As a result, today’s social circles are likely to rely less on traditional family units and more on the people you’ve met along the way.

This is absolutely true for me. After high school, I did my four years of college and got a job. I was in no rush to get into a long-term relationship, and I really didn’t get into one for several years following my graduation. My social circle became comprised largely of friends I knew through RPGs, the furry fandom, and the bookstore I worked at. Now that I’m married, my husband and I do have very close relationships with our families, but for day-to-day support, we tend to turn to our friends. We are the very model of the urban tribes Watters talks about in his book.

Tribal Traditions

One of the most common threads of an urban tribe is that they tend to develop their own traditions. We absolutely have, and, as we come into the holiday season, many of our traditions come to the fore. A lot of our friends do not go home for the holidays, either because of financial burden, estrangement from their families, or work schedules. For my part, because my sister lives in the far western part of Massachusetts, my family tends to celebrate holidays only on the weekends. As a result, my family never celebrates Thanksgiving on Thanksgiving Thursday, and we rarely celebrate Christmas on December 25.

This has given rise to what we refer to jokingly as our Orphan Holidays. We host our Orphans’ Thanksgiving dinner for our friends who have no other plans on the Thursday. We make a roast turkey (which is always incredibly moist, flavorful, and juicy… thank you, Alton Brown), mashed potatoes, green bean casserole, stuffing (well… technically dressing…I never actually stuff the bird), Polish meatballs, cabbage rolls, cranberry sauce with walnuts, and gravy. We also provide soda, cider, and pies (usually apple, pumpkin, and mince). Our friends usually bring their own favorites or fill-in the gaps. We’ve had them bring salad, biscuits, wine, beer, other desserts, macaroni and cheese, sausages, and other treats. This guarantees that no Thanksgiving is like any other, because everyone puts their own stamp on it. It also gives my friends in place to be on the holiday rather than microwaving a frozen turkey dinner, an image I find heartbreaking. Besides, we can then bring the leftovers to my family Thanksgiving the following weekend.

Our Thanksgiving traditions don’t just consist of food (though that’s a big part of it obviously). We almost always throw in our DVD of “Planes, Trains, and Automobiles”. Let’s face it; there aren’t that many movies about Thanksgiving. Other traditions include clearing the table and playing board games, or heading to the movies to see films that were released the previous Wednesday.

Tribe as Support Group

There’re some obvious advantages to deriving your support from a group of people who you’re not actually related to. Your family tragedies and dramas probably aren’t affecting them, so you’re more likely to get honest emotional support. As a recent and still painful example, I lost my mother this past September. I leaned more and harder on my friends than I did on my brother, sister, or stepfather. Why? Because my brother, sister, and stepfather were already going through what I was going through. My friends who knew and loved my mother were affected less keenly and less deeply for the most part (though my husband was hit just as hard as I was… he and my mom had a great relationship). I was able to take from them the support and strength I needed to get through this incredibly difficult time without putting extra pressure, burdens, or heaviness on my immediate family.

Another advantage to having a large support group of friends as your tribe is that many of them probably already share the same loves and interests that you do. I loved my mom, and I love Disney, but my mom did not love Disney. So when I wanted to see a Disney film, or visit a Disney theme park, my mom was not the first person I thought of. Of course she wasn’t; she was convinced that Walt Disney was a sadist who hated children because Snow White (the first film she ever saw in a cinema) scared the crap out of her. So I tended to turn to my friends when I wanted to go see a Disney flick or was in the mood to fire up a Disney DVD. And while both my mom and my dad had a strong understanding of D&D, neither of them were the sort of person who really wanted to play. Again, my tribe was invaluable while I was growing up for just these purposes.

If you have a tribe of your own, and I suspect many of you do whether you think of them as that or not, then you’d probably rather turn to your tribe then your family for dating advice and support as well. I never really discussed my dating life with my mom or dad, initially because I was in the closet, but later because what I thought of as an appropriate date and what they thought of as an appropriate date really didn’t seem to coincide. Now it is true that my mom’s taste in my boyfriends was far better than my own. She disliked the boyfriend who made my life rather hellish for six months from the moment she met him, and she liked my husband Steve right away. But I can’t imagine that I ever would have brought a guy home and asked her to evaluate him. That’s something you can kind of ask a friend or friends to do that family just isn’t appropriate for.

Tell Me of Your Own Tribe, Usul

If you think you have an urban tribe of your own, tell us about it. Mine is actually called the Jolly Otter, after my SCA household… big geek here, remember? Does your tribe have a name? Do you have tribal traditions? Do you keep in contact by phone, newsletter, Facebook accounts, or by some other method? Fly your tribal colors proudly, and let us all hear about it.

About GGG

Andy/GGG is a gay geek guy for sure. He's been playing D&D since he was 10, and he equates reading Tolkien with religion to some degree. He's a writer/developer for a Live Action RPG called The Isles, and he writes a comic called Circles, a gay, furry slice-of-life piece that comes out way too infrequently.

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