Please bless this food: Hosting Thanksgiving at an LDS church building

November 23, 2018

Dotting the countrysides and cities of Utah County are literally hundreds of chapels built for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

It’s hard to miss the myriad of church steeples rising up from neighborhoods and along main roads within a block of each other.

The countless church buildings are built to accommodate the staggering number of church members in the county. More than 80 percent of Utah County residents count themselves as church members, according to 2010 data from the American Religion Data Archive.

During Thanksgiving, one unique tradition among members is to reserve an entire church building to host individual family dinners.

Needing the space

Lehi resident Michelle Hiatt and her family have hosted Thanksgiving at the same Provo stake center for nearly a decade.

Before reserving the church building, the family would meet at the in-laws’ house in Provo. Hiatt’s husband is one of 15 siblings, and his parents three-bedroom house was not big enough to accommodate the extended family during the holiday.

Meeting at the church building means there is space for the more than 75 family members who travel to the event.

“It’s loud, no matter where we are at,” Hiatt said with a laugh.

Before the holiday, the family passes around a potluck-style signup sheet so everyone brings something different to the event.

The stake center has a large industrial kitchen with wide counters, double sinks and enough room for all the warmers or crockpots. Everything is prepared beforehand since the LDS church has a policy prohibiting members from using the building kitchen to cook food.

The traditional holiday meal is usually eaten in the multipurpose room next to the kitchen. Then, the family hangs out at the church building for the rest of the afternoon.

“You just kind of come in and graze and eat pies and eat leftovers again at dinner time,” Hiatt said.

Hosting Thanksgiving at the church building was awkward and didn’t feel right for the first few years, she explained. But now, family members appreciate the space.

“It’s really nice because we get the small, intimate dinner, but then we’ve got room to spread out and everybody can have fun doing what they want to do without having to be on top of each other,” Hiatt added.

One year, the church building was accidentally double-booked. Hiatt and her family arrived to find another family setting up tables in the church gym.

So her family set up in the multipurpose room and didn’t spread out until the other family finished their event and left.

“It gets pretty tight and squeezed in, but it’s nice that it’s connected right to where all the food is at,” she said.

Recognizing the reverence

Dena Millet and her family are holding Thanksgiving on Friday this year. They booked a church building in Spanish Fork, but didn’t submit reservations in time for the actual holiday date.

“It ended up being a lot easier to get a hold of a building on Friday rather than on Thursday,” Millet said.

In the past, the family needed to reserve the building at least a couple months before the holiday.

Millet and her family have held Thanksgiving at an LDS church building ever since the combined family “outgrew” everyone’s homes. The family borrows the church chairs and tables for the event.

“You can’t afford to have the size of house you need to keep everybody once all the additions to the family come in,” she said. “(The church) keeps Thanksgiving a little more civil because nobody is sitting right on top of each other.”

This year, her adult children helped plan the dinner and distribute the cooking assignments. When the in-laws attend, Millet usually plans to make mashed potatoes for at least 40 people.

In addition to the extra space, the church also brings a certain feeling of gratitude to the dinner. The kids tend to behave better knowing they are in a church building, Millet explained.

“I think it adds a sense of reverence into the event,” she said. “That feeling is there.”

Another bonus is that no one is left alone with the cleanup at the end of the event. Everyone pitches in to clean and take home food.

“For the most part, it’s really simple to put it together,” she added.

Enjoying time spent together

For the past 20 years, Angela Richards and her family have held Thanksgiving in a church building.

Richards is the oldest of nine children, and the group of aunts, uncles and cousins was too large to fit inside her grandparent’s home. Occasionally, the family also invites LDS missionaries to eat with them.

The church building has “space for food to be prepared, a room for everyone to eat and mingle and then the gym for the kids to play basketball and run around and get some energy out,” she said.

Some years, the Lehi family would set up tables in the church gym, but the bigger space felt less cozy. There was also a risk that a basketball might fly into the food if anyone started playing a game in the same area.

Now the family sets up in a room next to the kitchen, where a serving hatch allows prepared food to be handed in straight from the kitchen.

“You have a lot more joint effort into the prep and clean up as well as a big open gym for the kids to run around and be crazy,” Richards said.

This year the celebration will be held at a church in Herriman, though the family has reserved different buildings across Utah County in past years. Sometimes, family members needed to reserve the building a year in advance.

“I totally love it,” Richards said. “There isn’t anyone that has the stress of preparing their home for a large group or being solely responsible for such a large cleanup. Everyone comes and helps set up and everyone helps clean everything up so that it looks as good or better than when you arrived.”

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