On Hilton Head Island, the author and her family color outside the lines when it comes to Thanksgiving traditions.

By Sharon Esteroff
October 06, 2008
Brie Williams

Every item on the children's checklist is accounted for: three cans of cranberry sauce, a bag of dry stuffing, 20 potatoes (10 white, 10 sweet), and two freshly baked pumpkin pies. There's only one thing still missing―the turkey. Where has Grandpa hidden the turkey?

It's not buried in the sand or secreted in the sea grass. It isn't lurking behind driftwood or camouflaged with seaweed. And with hours to go until Thanksgiving dinner, it's high time for that bird to get roasting.
Just in time, a victory cry resounds from under a palmetto tree. "I found it!" shouts 8-year-old Jakey Estroff. "500 points for the Pilgrim Team!"

To a chance passerby, this scene might seem strange. But to the gleeful search party proudly toting their booty from the beach to the kitchen, it's simply another Estroff family Thanksgiving.

I was 8 when my family began our annual pilgrimage to Hilton Head Island, South Carolina. My brothers and I would ride the more than 250 miles from Atlanta to The Sea Pines Resort sprawled out in the back of a station wagon. I was 9 when I found my first can of cranberry sauce nestled amid the palmettos.
Now, I continue the tradition with my husband, Lee, and our four children. With the addition of baby Lila (my youngest brother's latest contribution to our ever-expanding brood), we hit 21 this year. Twelve adults, nine kids, three generations of loved ones―all partaking in the same quirky holiday games.

The supper search, going strong for 33 years and counting, honors the spirit of the story of the first Thanksgiving, when Pilgrims and American Indians hunted and gathered the makings of their harvest meal. But scrambling to find a frozen Butterball along the seashore is only one of our many rituals.

There's also our reenactment of the landing at Plymouth. Every member of the Duke/Estroff/Nowicki clan piles onto a piece of driftwood and yells, "Land ho!" For our spirited Sprunt Pond Fishing Showdown, we use pumpkin bread as bait. We create American Indian-inspired crafts, making colorful headdresses and jewelry by threading beads and stapling feathers. Competition comes in the form of Thanksgiving Survivor Games, featuring shell tosses, beach-football games, and sand-castle building contests.

Why do we go to such extremes? You might say it's in our genes. My father, Marshall Duke, is a psychologist and researcher at Emory University's Center for Myth and Ritual in American Life (MARIAL). He has devoted much of his career to investigating the importance of family traditions. Study after study suggests that the consistent presence of ritual and tradition provides families with the stability they need to thrive in this rocket-paced, anxiety-ridden 21st century.

Strung between the mismatched beads and built into the sand castles are the makings of my family's greatest memories. I take comfort knowing that no matter how crazy our daily grind gets, we'll spend one glorious week in November doing what we love to do. Laughing out loud. Wearing costumes. Playing in the sand. And if one year, we hide the turkey too well and no one finds it, maybe that's OK.

For more on Sharon's parenting columns and her book, Can I Have a Cell Phone for Hanukkah? (Broadway, 2007), visit sharonestroff.com. For more on The Sea Pines Resort, visit seapines.com.