Oh, there’s no place like home for the holidays...
Or is there?
Stress Is the concept of home warm and fuzzy for you? Have the tribulations of life made going home less welcoming, less comforting, or maybe even impossible?
The conventional notion of home, described by Robert Frost as, “the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in,” does not exist anymore for many people. For others, it never did.
As a child I lived in a picture-perfect home, with a mother and father who embraced hosting relatives at Thanksgiving and Christmas. The cousins would have a grand time playing games, running around, and receiving kisses, hugs, and a ten-dollar bill from our grandparents.
I relished my mother’s pumpkin cream cheese pies and my father’s baklava. Once grown, I was eager to return to my childhood home in Indialantic on Christmas Eve in time to see Santa Claus throwing candy from the top of the town’s firetruck. At Thanksgiving and Christmas, I watched my father prepare the turkey and shove it in the oven. My childhood holidays were idyllic. Like a Burl Ives song.
After my parents divorced when I was 35 years old, Thanksgiving and Christmas became holidays of stress, anxiety, and depression. Old traditions felt empty. The former ways of doing things became painful or meaningless. I grew moody at the holidays. Getting together with the family began to feel hollow, scripted, and desperate. Expectations of how I should act, what I should think, and how things should be done had not bothered me before. Now they became smothering and annoying thoughts:
a rote performance of obligation, rife with political land mines.
The year my father first went away with his new significant other for Thanksgiving instead of making a turkey in my house with me, I became desolate. When my mother succumbed to pancreatic cancer before what we had planned on being her last Thanksgiving, I fell into despair.
The holidays were going to be forever different now.
Change Your Dynamic
Soon after my mother’s death, my brother and I sold the childhood home where, for almost 50 years, we woke up on Christmas morning to the excess of Santa Claus. The old ways were officially gone, and we needed a new plan.
We decided to create new traditions and have new experiences. Soon, we began to realize that without the obligation of family, the holidays were actually much less stressful. No more worries about whether or not everyone would behave and get along. No more concern about whether or not my meal would be up to my parents’ high standards. Maybe we could just travel over winter break now. Or, maybe we could attend a “Friendsgiving,” or enjoy Christmas brunch with friends, instead. We could discuss what movie we would see on Christmas day followed by a new tradition: Chinese food for dinner. Maybe it was not so bad to let the old traditions go. Perhaps breaking with tradition was liberating.
We live in challenging times. Many of us are wrestling with the effects of the pandemic, political divisiveness, home and job loss. Not everyone looks forward to the holidays and a few of us are not even sure we like some of our family members anymore.
If Thanksgiving with the family previously meant you were forced to pretend to like toxic people, this year you are off the hook. If the old ways of celebrating no longer serve you, now is the perfect time to change it up.
I am not suggesting you ditch your family; I am merely pointing out that you do not have to be a hostage of your family’s—or your own—expectations.
Sure, you could steel yourself with a couple of glasses of bubbly before forcing a smile and walking on eggshells for an evening of psychosocial torture, or you might decide to suck it up and make the best of it, especially if it involves a relative you worry will not make it into 2021. Just know that it really is okay to observe special days of meaning in a way that does not create resentment or ill will.
Give Yourself Permission to be Happy
In 2020 especially, you have earned the right to practice self-care. Feel free to opt out of aggravating scenarios that make you fume for days. You deserve to celebrate in any way that might be more meaningful or joyful for you. This Thanksgiving, if you would prefer to be alone on a mountaintop or, if you’d prefer to volunteer at a soup kitchen for Christmas instead of arguing with your bigoted uncle or explaining to your aunt why you are still not married, by all means, excuse yourself from the table.
If you cannot break from tradition yet feel uneasy about the holidays this year, prepare yourself before the doorbells ring. Make a list of the good times. Remind yourself of the stories that might soften the focus on the harsh lenses we are looking out of these days. Realize that you—and your relatives—are more than your political, religious, and philosophical differences. Give yourself a good hour or two to get centered before getting together with the family. Take a long walk on the beach while listening to uplifting music. Enjoy a bath with Epsom salts and essential oils. Light some candles and put those old records on. Pray, meditate, or read inspirational writings that will get you into the love-thy-neighbor and live-and-let-live zone.
We have all struggled and suffered in 2020. Perhaps cultivating a tiny bit of compassion for yourself and others will help you open your heart to the people who really do love you even if they don’t know how to show it. Remember that how you decide to celebrate—or not—is your choice. Let us just be thankful for those of us who are still here. Let us hope that 2021 will be a little kinder, a bit healthier, a touch more loving, a smidge more compassionate, and a pinch more peaceful. Whatever you celebrate, may your holidays be exactly the way you want them to be. And if for some reason they are not, may you make peace with them the way they are. May you take the pressure of expectations off of yourself and let go of the need for the holidays to be perfect.