Other holidays offer a variety of ways to participate--stopping by to visit, dropping off a card or gift, tossing back a drink of something or other. But Thanksgiving is literally a meat-and-potatoes kind of occasion: Miss dinner and you've missed the point.
Which is why one of modern Thanksgiving's most familiar debates is the one about where dinner will be served and who will cook it.
The decision is often a freeze-frame of where people are at in their lives.
Gloria Thomas of Aliso Viejo is planning dinner around visitation schedules in a blended family. Anna Maciel of Garden Grove is teaching unwritten recipes to her daughter-in-law. Thom Nguyen of Westminster is embracing the holiday traditions he's learning. Nicole Quibodeaux of Costa Mesa is preparing to cook her first Thanksgiving meal.
"There are so many people in so many tangents of our family, and they live all over the place," says Thomas, 39. "And not all of them get along."
Thomas shares a yours-mine-and-ours family with her previously married husband, Craig, which throws an ever-alternating child-custody schedule into the mix. Additionally, both their parents are divorced.
"We have to plan very carefully," Thomas says with a laugh. "Otherwise, we're either going to hear from people wondering why they weren't invited or from people making up excuses why they can't come."
Thomas brings a breezy attitude to the complex dynamics, determined that the holiday won't be ruined. Inevitably, everything works out.
"If you let this kind of stuff get to you, things really could get insane," she acknowledges. "Besides, you talk to people and you realize that nobody really has a normal family, so nobody really has a normal Thanksgiving."
In that sense, the Thomas family is typical of the ever-shifting nature of the holiday.
"Usually, because Craig's father is the patriarch, we do whatever he tells us to do," Thomas says lightly. "But this year he moved to Washington state, so it's a weird, who-knows type of thing again."
Eventually, they may just stay home.
"At some point, the older generation stops being the place you go for holidays," Thomas says. "At some point, the baton is passed. Maybe even this year."
This is the year that Maciel, longtime matriarch of her family's Thanksgiving celebrations, is turning over the honor and responsibility to one of her daughters-in-law, Becky.
"She wanted to start a tradition in her own home, and I could understand that," says Maciel, the mother of five married sons, ages 29 to 40. "It seems as though I've been cooking Thanksgiving dinner since time began, but it was at my mother's house until I got married."
The change wasn't necessarily a transfer of power, however.
"I'll still be the supervisor," Maciel emphasizes. "I want my daughters-in-law to come to me to learn the traditional ways to cook the dinner. Because we cook our ethnic foods."
Maciel is excited to share the secrets of her Thanksgiving specialties, from the turkey and mole sauce to the Mexican relleno dressing. She says her daughters-in-law are eager to learn, but she anticipates a slow process.
"It is very complicated, especially because we don't follow recipes," Maciel says. "We cook by how we feel, with some of this and a little of that. I don't expect them to get it right away. That's why I'll be in the kitchen with them. We'll do it together."
This is Nguyen's fourth Thanksgiving since he immigrated to the United States from Vietnam, and he's still getting the hang of the American holiday.
"In Vietnam, we just have Christmas," says Nguyen, 23, a tailor. "I learned about Thanksgiving in the ESL [English as Second Language] class I took when I just came here. When my teacher told me about it I thought, 'That's a good holiday.' "
Nguyen, who lives with his uncle and aunt, will spend Thanksgiving at home, where about 20 people are expected to gather.
"I think Thanksgiving is for staying at home only," Nguyen says. "It is for talking and jokes and dancing, anything like that."
Nguyen's got the concept nailed, but he sometimes still struggles with the taste of turkey and stuffing, cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie.
"I don't know if I like it, but I still eat it," he says. "On that day, you have to eat it. You don't want anything else."
Quibodeaux has been eating Thanksgiving dinners all her life, but this is the first year she will create one.
"I've never cooked a turkey for any reason," says Quibodeaux, 24, who shares an apartment with her husband, John, and their cat, Tigger. "I don't go in the kitchen."
But then her grandmother finally decided to focus on Christmas dinner after handling double-holiday duty for decades.
"I volunteered--it just kind of popped out of my mouth," she says, laughing.
Suddenly faced with presenting a formal dinner for five, Quibodeaux is going all out.
"I've researched everything," she says, her voice clicking with efficiency. "I've gone through all my Martha Stewart magazines, where I found a lot of fun recipes and neat ways to decorate the table. I went to the library and went through, like, 20 books looking for instructions for cooking a roast turkey with traditional bread stuffing. I finally found it in a cookbook that was about 50 years old, called "How to Cook American Food," or something like that, and there it was."
As often happens during research, Quibodeaux is learning more than she was looking for.
"To tell you the truth, I never cared about Thanksgiving," she admits. "Growing up, I never liked any of the holidays--which is a long story, but the point is that I'm thrilled about Thanksgiving this year. I could cry.
"The idea that you need a big house and lots of people to come over isn't true. We live in a one-bedroom apartment. It will only be a small group. But I grew up at my grandma's house, where she did so much for me. To be able to have her come over and do something for her--and my mom and my brother--with my husband carving the turkey, that's exciting even though it's very simple. That's Thanksgiving."