If there’s one holiday movie scene that’s a guaranteed, family-wide tearjerker, it’s the ending to Planes, Trains, and Automobiles. For the uninitiated: after workaholic ad executive Steve Martin and oblivious, obnoxious shower curtain ring salesman John Candy have successfully made it home in time for Thanksgiving — teaming up after a canceled flight — they part ways, having warmed up to each other significantly.
Before he makes it home, however, Martin thinks back on Candy’s throwaway comments over the course of their journey, about his wife, his home, his plans for the holiday. It doesn’t add up. He returns to the train station and finds Candy still there, with nowhere to go, his wife having passed away, and his life having become the bleak routine of the traveling salesman. The film ends with John Candy warmly welcomed into Martin’s house by his entire family.
It’s a powerful finale because it is such an uncommon idea. Holidays are family affairs and bringing in others is seen as, well, abnormal. But why? Holidays are family-oriented, sure, but they’re also a time to reaffirm values, and to give back. That’s why bringing in a stranger, especially one without a family, whose family is far away, or can’t afford to go home, is a worthy invitation. Seeking out a John Candy character to befriend and bring into the fold is rewarding for the person, for the fun of the gathering, and, yes, for your kids.
“By inviting a new family that moved to the city or somebody who may not have somewhere to go for the holidays, the parents in that family are sending a message about their values to their children,” says Sarah Epstein, family therapist and author of Love in the Time of Medical School. “They are sending the message that the family values community, they value inclusion, and they value kindness.”
The act of inviting someone new to the table is not just a statement of purpose — it’s one of many things you can do to establish a bedrock of empathy in your kids, as well as a curiosity about someone else’s life and story. “There’s a saying with children: ‘more is caught than taught,'” says Epstein. “Kids will start to learn the values of community, kindness, and thinking of others during the holidays when they see their parents model those traits. Those kinds of gestures can reverberate down the generations.”
Before you develop a savior complex, it’s worth noting that the addition to your holiday gathering has a lot to offer you and your family as well. “Having outsiders at a family meal absolutely impacts family dynamics during that meal,” says Epstein. “Family members may find themselves viewing the dinner from the perspective of the newcomer. They may find that they can understand the family dynamics with fresh eyes. Perhaps that will even lead a family member to engage a little differently, whether that means avoiding the typical holiday fight or choosing to be more gracious during a difficult moment.”
The hardest part of an open door holiday policy is probably the invitation. It’s an act that starts with a bit of risk because you don’t know what it will mean to them or how they will take the ask. Given this, first approach people you know — someone who can’t afford to go home, whose home is too far away to make the trip, or you know they just don’t have an inviting home to go to.
The best way to break the ice is to ask what their plans are for the holidays in the course of casual conversation. Normalize the possibility that they might not be going anywhere for the holiday, and this will hopefully make someone more comfortable divulging that information themselves. Alternatively, you can plan a potluck that involves more than one stranger at the table, and let others know they’re more than welcome to join the group. This both bolsters the group, and prevents anyone from feeling singled out or insecure about their position.
There are also online platforms that connect people in need with homes. Meal Sharing, a peer-to-peer dining site, hosts a program called ThanksSharing, which connects people with those looking to share a meal for Thanksgiving. Share Your Meal lets people who could benefit from an extra portion know which one of their neighbors can host them for the day. Additionally, Feastly plans larger food events for people to go connect with others, and make a new friend.
Bring your family to one of these, and take the time to welcome someone who might have gone by themselves. “We’re less interested in what’s on the table than in giving people an opportunity to connect,” Danny Harris, the founder of Feastly, told the non-profit Shareable. This means making new friends or finding a sympathetic ear, connecting with new communities or sharing the wealth. After all, isn’t that what the holidays are supposed to be about?