Eyes on the Pies: What I crave for Thanksgiving and its traditions.

A few Thanksgivings ago, shortly after dinner, my father disappeared. Our family had been resting in a satisfying, post-meal lethargy when someone noticed that his car was missing. It was nearly dusk, the weather turning brisk, and the Dallas Cowboys game only in the third quarter. Stranger still, he hadn’t finished his pie. Fearing the worst, I was ready to dial 911.

“The Xbox is on sale,” my mother explained, making sure my nephews weren’t within earshot. “He went to Walmart.”

This development was worse than anything I had imagined. Falling victim to the continual rollback of store opening hours, my father had inexplicably decided to begin holiday shopping on Thanksgiving night! The turkey wasn’t even cold.

An hour later, he returned empty-handed, a look of shock on his face. “It was a madhouse,” he said, describing a line of shivering shoppers that stretched across a parking lot, each of them armed with a credit card, a list and a carb-fueled determination.

All the discounted gaming systems would find other homes that day. The same weekend, my parents would end up purchasing a more expensive one online. Although they nearly had to pay retail, it seemed a small price to pay for the invaluable lesson my parents learned.

“Never again,” my father declared after we had revived his good senses with a slice of mincemeat pie.

The strangest part was that my father had been allowed out of the house at all. Yes, some families do make Black Friday (or Thursday) bargain hunting part of their Thanksgiving traditions. Quality time, to some, means not just getting together but also getting 30 percent off a big-screen TV.

That, however, has never been our clan. Especially not if the spending spree interferes with the hours reserved for family bonding. It’s tough enough to schedule one meal around all the individuals’ obligations.

So, in our family, not a moment is wasted. The meal begins only after we go around the table, each person declaring what they are thankful for in a Norman-Rockwell-like display. Then, our tongues loosened by gravy, we converse over dinner, enlivened by the pleasure of the holiday — and the prospect of the bonanza of pies to come.

After the feast, it’s a safe bet the remaining time will be filled with games and socializing. There’s never talk of shopping. Even if we’re just watching football, we all know better than to suggest driving to the mall.

“I got out the good china so that you could wait in line for a blender!” would be my mother’s response. “A blender?”

It’s not that my family is immune to the attractions of holiday shopping. In fact, when I was a kid, Black Friday involved its own cherished rites. We would wake early, pile into a station wagon and head downtown to fight for a parking space. The streets would be decorated with festive lights, as we bounded from one storefront to another, ending up in Sibley’s or Dey Brothers, sifting through a basement bin for half-priced gloves.

The day would not be complete without a visit to Syracuse’s Original Karmelcorn Shoppe and a stop to admire the gleaming tree in Clinton Square. If we were lucky, a gentle snowfall would dust the evening with a coating of magic.

Times have changed a little. It may be due to the kid goggles through which I — still! — view the holidays. I remember when the Sears catalog was required reading, pages earmarked throughout the toy section. And Santa Claus was the celebrity, his fame built on myth, morals, and that bottomless bag of presents.

Childhood wonder fades, but my perspective hasn’t transformed nearly as much as the shopping experience has. Black Friday is no longer for the faint of heart: Serious shoppers get in line before dawn, braving cold and crowds for the chance to land a superb deal and cross items off their list. That, to some, is a custom as treasured as breaking the wishbone.

I suppose everyone has a tradition that others can’t appreciate. Each year I watch Die Hard while wrapping gifts. Viewing it has become my ritual, although I own at least a dozen DVDs of heartwarming movies that do not feature exploding helicopters.

My daughter’s dance group has their own seasonal practice. On one Saturday afternoon each December they ring bells at a Salvation Army kettle inside Destiny USA. “We wear Santa hats and put on Christmas-y clothes,” Sadie says. She counts it among her favorite Yuletide outings.

Whatever your traditions are, I hope you get to celebrate them as only you know how. If that means heading out shopping before your food is digested, then by all means do so.

Don’t look for me, though. I will be home, listening to holiday music and eating pie. Have I mentioned all the pie?

For me, Thanksgiving isn’t about the sales. It’s about relaxing, watching parades, and continuing the debate about canned vs. real cranberry sauce. (I contend both are terrible.) It’s about planning a meal for 1 p.m. and calling it “dinner.” It’s about spending time with loved ones, eating my own weight in mashed potatoes, and collapsing into an easy chair. It’s about being thankful that family time is always free — which is one heck of a bargain.

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