Transforming Tradition : The Valley's Varied Perspectives Refine Meaning of Thanksgiving : Back at the Rancho

Hearth and home, turkey with all the trimmings, family members reunited from afar.

These are the usual images of Thanksgiving, a holiday outdone only by Christmas in its sense of tradition and fireside warmth. But tradition does not reflect all of today's reality, as definitions of home, family and even food are evolving in our society.

Throughout the San Fernando Valley, residents gathered in their own unique ways to observe a national holiday that has deep roots in American history. From a Chatsworth home for boys to houses where turkey is taboo, from a group of Filipino exchange students dining at a Mexican restaurant to a new kind of family in Van Nuys, celebrations and celebrants brought new perspectives to the meaning of Thanksgiving.

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The tables were set with white linen, candles and goblets, flower arrangements and wicker cornucopias. Sparkling apple cider flowed freely. Outside the windows and through the arches, the perfectly manicured lawns were barely visible in the evening twilight.

The scene could have been one of traditional tranquillity at any number of homes this time of year.

But it wasn't any other home. This was the scene Wednesday night at Rancho San Antonio, Boys Town of the West, a Chatsworth placement home for juvenile delinquents and youths from troubled homes, who gathered on Thanksgiving eve to give thanks for their very lives. They entered the dining hall, some in starched collars, some in jeans, all of them eager to eat and brimming with boyish energy.

They paused over their tables, suddenly silent, heads bowed for a group prayer simple in language and sentiment.

"Thanks for the air we breathe, thanks for the food we eat, thanks for the water we drink," they prayed.

These are not just words for many of the boys here. Many of these young men consider it some divine mixture of fate and faith that they are alive for another holiday season.

Some are experiencing life sober for the first time since childhood. Others used to deal drugs, burglarize homes, pack weapons. Most know how close they came to spending the holidays behind bars or in the grave, rather than with the staff members and compatriots of Rancho San Antonio who are now their extended family.

"This pretty much feels like I think Thanksgiving is supposed to feel," said Jose, 18, of Wednesday's dinner. "Everyone caring for each other, there for each other. And all the good food. I guess that's what Thanksgiving is."

"Society, I think, looks at the perfect picture of Thanksgiving, you know, the dog at the fireplace and the whole bit," said John, 16, who is spending his second Thanksgiving in a row away from his foster family. "But the weird thing is that they are not thankful for what they have of it. They just think it should just be that way."

Sixteen-year-old Miguel is one of the lucky ones: He will spend at least part of this holiday weekend with his family in La Puente on a special pass from the home, which is run by the Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles.

It will be the first time Miguel has seen his parents and siblings in more than a year.

"It used to be the first thing I'd always think about is going to my friends, getting high," Miguel said.

"Now I am always thinking about being with my family . . . having dinner," he said with a smile. "Maybe talking with them. . . . That's something I haven't done in a long time."

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