'Orphan Thanksgiving': How one woman made a nontraditional holiday a tradition

March 08, 2019 11:15 AM

For some, Thanksgiving is a day to be with family.

Others gather around the table with friends.


For Catie Boardman, the holiday means inviting strangers from the internet into her south Minneapolis apartment for a Turkey Day meal.

Boardman has been hosting "Orphan Thanksgiving" for seven years now.

Via Reddit, Facebook and the neighborhood app Nextdoor, she invites anyone without a place to go on Thanksgiving to spend it with her, some family and friends and other people from the nebulous online world.

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"I don’t like the idea of people having nowhere to go," Boardman said as she scraped Oreo filling out of the cookies and into a bowl, the basis of a cheesecake she’s making for the dinner.

It wasn’t just a desire to give people a place to go that led Boardman to birth Orphan Thanksgiving. It came also from a feeling most anyone can relate to – being fed up with family Thanksgiving.

Boardman had to juggle two family celebrations, and coupled with the stress associated with those holidays, she decided several years ago to do things differently.

"Family Thanksgiving can be very fraught," she said.

So, she decided, "We’re doing it my way."

And her way involves giving her address, via direct message, to anyone on Reddit, Facebook or Nextdoor who doesn’t have family or friends to spend the holiday with.

RELATED: Volunteers packing Thanksgiving meals for distribution in the metro

Most of us have been told since we were young not to trust strangers on the internet. But Boardman’s not afraid. She said the group setting makes her, and the guests, more comfortable.

"If anyone was an ax murderer, they can come back later," she said.

The worst she’s seen is a bit of awkwardness. Overcoming the uneasiness of having Thanksgiving dinner – typically an intimate affair – with a group of people who only know you by your screen name is one of the biggest challenges of the event.

"People can be awkward, and that’s fine," Boardman said.

"What’s really awkward is if people I don’t know show up very early."

Her solution to that awkwardness? Put the guests to work cooking or setting the table.

"Being put to work helps dismantle a bit of the awkwardness," Boardman said.

The menu is "very traditional," according to Boardman, who said she got her affinity and ability for cooking from her mother. There’s turkey, obviously, albeit with a twist – the bird is cooked buffalo-style with a blue cheese sauce.

Side dishes include cranberry sauce, homemade stuffing (the key to a good stuffing, according to Boardman? Keep it simple) and sweet potatoes.

RELATED: Tips for a safe Thanksgiving holiday

Boardman used to ask people to bring dishes, but she’s now taken on all the cooking – and she prefers it that way. She said balancing dietary restrictions and other logistics made a potluck situation unwieldy.

She still allows contributions for one part of the meal – Boardman said she has largely "outsourced desserts."

In lieu of dishes, Boardman has set up a GoFundMe where people can donate to help pay for the dinner. She said she doesn’t require guests to donate, and she asks everyone to donate anonymously.

In the early years of Orphan Thanksgiving, when she was a student, the donations were crucial to the event’s success. Now, Boardman’s job allows her to shoulder most of the cost.

All told, about 10 hours of prep go into the dinner. While Boardman used to spread the prep out over several days, this year, she said most of the work will be done the day before and the day of Thanksgiving.

"It gets less every year as I learn the process more," she said.

Once dinner is done, the group sometimes plays games or hangs around to help Boardman clean up.

"My friends are always the last ones to leave because strangers are not going to stick around that long," she said.

The first year Boardman hosted the event, 18 people showed up. It peaked one year at around 40 people, which Boardman said was too much. Last year’s event drew 30 people, and this Thanksgiving she expects around 20.

She said on any given year, it's about a 50/50 split between strangers and family and friends.

The idea of inviting a bunch of strangers from the internet into your home for a Thanksgiving meal may give some pause, but to hear Boardman tell it, she wouldn’t have the holiday any other way.

Her nontraditional Thanksgiving has become a tradition in and of itself.  

"I think people should be more willing to go out on a limb," she said. "There’s a lot to be gained by trying something different.

"But don’t post your address on Reddit."

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Anthony Brousseau

Copyright 2019 - KSTP-TV, LLC A Hubbard Broadcasting Company


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