NEW YORK – For a wounded nation, finding solace is tough, but nothing soothes frayed nerves like Thanksgiving, an all-American holiday steeped in comforting traditions.
This year, gathering with family and friends, eating dishes enjoyed since childhood, cooking and even watching football or the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade are all balms for the edginess felt since the country was rocked by terrorism.
"I think it will be one of the most important Thanksgivings we've had in a long time," said Frank Farley, former president of the American Psychological Association. "Of course many people have lost loved ones and for them this first holiday since the disaster will be very emotional and could be a bittersweet day to give thanks. The nation at large will feel more, and be thinking more about what Thanksgiving really means."
While many people are spending the long weekend with family, fears of flying and busy work schedules are preventing some from traveling. But even those who can't be with blood relatives are pulling together to form adoptive families.
"Two of my employees aren't comfortable flying so they're coming to eat with my family," said Nada Lantz, owner of Lantz-a-Lot Inc., a retail management firm in Palm Beach, Fla. "We made our place a haven this year for family and friends."
And Lantz is forgoing some of the day's formality to make herself and her guests more comfortable after enduring a very rough autumn.
Her normally formal dinner party will be replaced by a casual meal served buffet style, and jeans will be the dress code for a laid-back holiday.
"It will be much more of a quiet reflective type of day," she said. "Everyone has a lot weighing on their minds, so it's a good time of year to be thankful."
Although air travel is expected to be down 15 percent, anxiety about traveling isn't enough to keep some people from family — even if it requires extra effort.
Caroline Tavelli-Abar, a New York City artist, normally enjoys a quiet Thanksgiving at home, but since Sept. 11 she said she's found herself desperately wanting to be with family.
"I'm flying out to San Francisco. I would not be going if it wasn't for Sept. 11," she said. "I really want to see my brother, I miss him so much lately, so I'm going."
This year America is opening its hearts and homes more than ever. Just as people all over the country pitched in after the terrorist attacks by donating food, blood and time, this holiday many people are also volunteering at homeless shelters and community centers.
Scottie Wait, volunteer coordinator at Pine Street Inn, a homeless shelter in Boston, said this year so many people want to help with Thanksgiving services that the shelter has created a waiting list.
"Right now we have about 160 volunteers set to come in Thanksgiving day and the day before, and those numbers are up by about 25 people," she said. "We have a waiting list of almost 60 people who are hoping to help. We're getting 30 to 40 calls every day from people looking to volunteer."
Helping others benefits more than those in need, said Farley. Volunteering boosts people's self-esteem and sense of community. He added that another way for everyone to feel better this holiday is by sticking to turkey day traditions.
"In periods of uncertainty, traditions are like solid ground," he said. "We are going through a period of enormous uncertainty, and they act as a beacon of hope. We have been so busy trying to get the country back together again, so this is a time for loved ones to come together and talk about things finally."
One of the most prominent traditions of the holiday is, of course, the food: beloved hearty dishes that are instilled in American life.
"Food is about much more than nourishment. It is a kind of celebration of the fact that we live in a county of plenty, and we're with our families and can enjoy this plenty together," said the executive editor of Gourmet magazine, John Willoughby. "Since Sept. 11 most of us have yearned to be with our loved ones and what do you do with them? You eat! The only place traditionally families are always together is around the table. It's a very communal act and will be much more marked this year."
But even more important than the actual food is the time families and friends will spend together, said Willoughby. "The eating part doesn't take that long. People in the kitchen for hours together cooking and cleaning up, that's just as important a part of the whole day, the group dynamic."
Thanksgiving traditions, with unique family touches, are like a security blanket Americans can't wait to feel comforted by this year.
"We may be having a more casual day but I still will be surrounded by people I love and eat the food I've had every year," said Lantz. "It's sentimental, it's comforting and it's important."