Friendsgiving: A place to call home, away from home |

Friendsgiving: A place to call home, away from home

How Eagle County residents celebrate the Thanksgiving holiday when they are far from family

From left: Alejandro Zepeda, Orlando Ortiz and Omi Villalba celebrate Friendsgiving together at an event held by Eagle County Pride on Thursday, Nov. 18, 2021.
Eagle County Pride/Courtesy photo

Spending holidays alone or away from home should feel like any other day does, but it doesn’t. So, we reach out, we open our doors, we bring over a plate and, thankfully, many Eagle County “stragglers” gather with friends — the family they choose, or so they say.

In a transient community like the Eagle Valley, there are many reasons why someone might not be able to go home for the holidays. Many have come here to work in jobs that pulled them across state lines or across oceans.

The idea of “Friendsgiving” is one that has been growing in popularity across the country, but it often means something a bit deeper in our little mountain valley.

“It was really challenging to build up those relationships from scratch so, once you start to form those friendships, it just makes a world of difference to feel like friends have become family,” said Mica Lynch, who came over from New Zealand to work in the valley.

This year, a group of Avon residents will spend Thanksgiving with friends and family, outside of their homes, not by choice but by tragedy.

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On Monday, just a few days before the holiday, a fire at the Liftview Condominiums in Avon forced the residents of approximately 30 condominiums to evacuate their homes, six of whom could not return as of late Monday. An estimated nine adults and two children are displaced for the holiday.

“I love to cook and my place is a safe, warm place for people to come and just share a story of the experience and maybe offer a little bit more support,” said Christy Samuelson, a Liftview resident whose home was spared in the fire. “Getting that knock on the door in the middle of the night is not something I wish on anyone.”

Samuelson will open her home this Sunday from 2 to 6 p.m. for a Friendsgiving feast and donation drive to benefit residents who lost some or all their belongings in the fire.

She invited her neighbors and the broader community to come by for a warm home, a potluck-style meal and a safe space filled with people who care. She especially wanted to honor the firefighters and first responders who she said went above and beyond to care for them as flames engulfed much of the complex in the early morning hours Monday.

“That’s what gratitude is, it’s just to give thanks for what we have and everyone’s alive and everyone will rebuild,” Samuelson said. “And, you know, we can pause and step back and see the blessing in that way of the community coming together. In the midst of tragedy, you see the best of humanity.”

A place to call home

The point is made more dire here but echoes throughout countless other Friendsgivings held across the valley this week. It is not the quality of the stuffing or the outcome of the inevitable white meat versus dark meat debate. The point is giving those around you a place to call home.

“It’s so important right now to make sure they all know that they’re not alone in this and they’ve got a place to be for the holidays and we can laugh, we can cry … it’s an open door policy,” Samuelson said.

Donations of gift cards, bedding and winter clothes should be brought to garage unit 78, apartment D105, in the Liftview Condominiums. For more details, Samuelson can be reached at (941) 228-5711.

Eagle County Pride kicked off the Friendsgiving season last Thursday, bringing together a group of local LGBTQ folks and allies over a warm meal at Mountain Youth Center in Edwards. The event was a mix of familiar faces and newcomers alike, said Madison Partridge, the president of the local group.

“It was so beautiful to see these friendships blossoming … to have this opportunity for people in our community to connect who maybe don’t know where to connect,” Partridge said.

Locals celebrate Friendsgiving together at an event held by Eagle County Pride on Thursday, Nov. 18, 2021.
Eagle County Pride/Courtesy photo

The event carried an added meaning as traveling home for Thanksgiving can look and feel a bit differently for some in the LGBTQ community, she said.

“What if this is someone’s only Thanksgiving and they don’t have acceptance from their family or they don’t have the ability to go see them or be with them?” Partridge said. “(We) just wanted to offer that safe space for anyone and everyone who’s going through different walks of life to have an opportunity to be part of Thanksgiving.”

Some of those who chose to pick up and start a new life in the valley build community through groups like these, finding belonging in sharing similar lived experiences.

‘It’s super important to gather with people’

For others, working two or three jobs to afford living here makes this kind of “extracurricular” involvement feel impossible. But, like a dandelion that springs up from a crack in the pavement, this reality has forged strong bonds among your local employees and seasonal workers.

They look out for one another, check in and, when they can help it, they don’t let one of their own stay home alone on a holiday, Crystal “CJ” Seatvet, owner of Zip Adventures of Vail, said in an interview Wednesday.

Seatvet spent a Thanksgiving alone during one of her first seasons in the valley. She figured it would be alright, but the loneliness she felt that day — like a piece was missing — is something she would never wish on her staff, she said.

“You think it’s going to be fine, but it’s not fine,” she said. “So, you just sit around and hope that someone invites you over … it’s the worst.”

Seatvet has been planning her Thanksgiving celebrations around her coworkers for the last four years, so that she can be the one to open the door for anyone sitting at home hoping for an invite.

“I realize, more now than ever, that it’s super important to gather with people,” she said. “Our team is a little bit younger than me … and I think you don’t realize until you’re a little bit older and you think, ‘Gosh, I don’t want anyone to be alone.’”

Crystal “CJ” Seatvet, second to left, sits with friends and coworkers on Thanksgiving Day four years ago, the first time she opened her home to anyone who didn’t have a place to go.
Crystal “CJ” Seatvet/Courtesy photo

The youth mentors of My Future Pathways, a local nonprofit organization, are celebrating their first Friendsgiving with a potluck dinner at Color Coffee in Eagle.

Abril Arenales said she and her fellow mentors work to create a safe, welcoming environment for local youth to get support in achieving their personal and academic goals. Part of this is building a strong team of mentors who care for one another as well, she said.

“I grew up here. I’ve lived here my whole life. So, I always say that I could have used a place like this … because it’s such a positive energy and vibe,” Arenales said. “I look up to all these people and it’s a really cool group of people to be around. They push me to be better, we all push each other to be better.”

Susan Marhoffer, a lawyer who works as a ticket scanner at Vail Resorts in her spare time, always invites a few stray coworkers or “stragglers” into her home for Thanksgiving. Many of them are younger than she and see her as a sort of foster grandmother around the holidays, she said. Without them, it would be just her, her husband, and her adult son, and where’s the fun in that?

“Those of us who scan together, we’re kind of like a family out there,” Marhoffer said. “Some of them are in employee housing and don’t really have access to a decent kitchen so I just enjoy having them over.”

Marhoffer has always loved traditional Thanksgiving foods like green bean casserole (her personal favorite), stuffing, turkey, and mashed potatoes. But what she loves even more are taking the next day’s leftovers and making them into a big, beautiful sandwich on rye bread. She makes sure to pack up some Tupperware for her crew so they can all partake together, she said.

“Mostly, it’s the single, younger guys who are just so appreciative of any food,” Marhoffer said with a laugh.

Susan Marhoffer’s table is set and ready to host any “stragglers” on her team at Vail Resorts who don’t have a home for the holiday.
Susan Marhoffer/Courtesy photo

A New Zealand native, Lynch’s annual Friendsgiving in the common space of the River Run apartments in EagleVail brings together seasonal workers from many different countries and, thus, features Thanksgiving dishes influenced by many different cultures.

“My friend is really excited about making like stuffed potatoes from Lithuania. Another friend is making duck, which I don’t think is very American traditional,” Lynch said.

Arenales plans to bring tamales to her Friendsgiving, a batch of spicy rojas and a batch of dulces bought from an Avon-based vendor.

We all celebrate differently, but one thing was consistent across every Friendsgiving host or participant that spoke with the Vail Daily this week. The magic of both traditional and non-traditional Thanksgiving celebrations is in the little things.

Lynch, for example, doesn’t even like to cook. But there is something about the chaos of a warm kitchen, bodies sidestepping around one another with inexplicable fluidity until the inevitable hip check that slops a blob of mashed potato on the floor or leaks a bit of gravy, prompting a quick burst of laughter.

“To be in the kitchen and working and cooking and then cleaning — the whole process around it makes it,” she said. “When you just arrive to eat food, that’s not that special.”

Yes, Lynch said, it is the little things that you can’t quite articulate in the moment but that — when all is said and done, with napkins thrown atop plates in sleepy, tryptophan-induced satisfaction — add up to something truly wonderful.

This is what makes those of us lucky enough to find community each year look back on the holidays with love in our hearts. It is what motivates us to open our home to friends, coworkers and, sometimes, complete strangers, moved to make sure that no one misses out on the moment.

For some, like the victims of the Avon fire, holidays are more complicated than this idyllic picture. So, we seek out spaces in the world where we can feel at home and regain some of the magic, the love, that we know is out there, somewhere.

“The holidays can be a tough time,” Samuelson said. “It’ll look different to everyone, but just give (your loved ones) a hug and tell them that you appreciate them each day. Don’t wait for Thanksgiving to be grateful — be grateful every day.”

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