“The holidays are all about misery and obligation.
If I didn’t have that every year I’d miss it.”
(Grace Adler to her mother on the TV show Will & Grace)
My default reaction to the realization that the holidays are around the corner for years has been dread. I know it’s not just me. For many of us, holidays are classic gray areas, annual occurrences with which we have a raw love-hate relationship.
We spend more time with our families, whether natal or extended, than at likely any other time of year, which is taxing regardless of where your family falls on the dysfunctionality continuum. Time is often compressed because of work and school obligations—how can such a short space of time contain all of our hopes and dreams for a storybook holiday? We trek homeward by plane, train, and automobile, and the usually frenzied trip itself often delivers us to our loving families in a grumpy heap.
Blending our increasingly nontraditional families can be a challenge. We are so far flung now, it’s complicated figuring out who goes where for which holiday and how to keep feelings from being hurt when we can’t be in two places at once (or two people we love can’t be in the same place at the same time, as the case may be). The specters of divorce and death are particularly strongly at the holidays, too. Maybe there just don’t seem to be the right number of people at the table anymore, and it can feel more like a time for mourning than celebrating. Me, I mourn not only the breakup of my own marriage 13 years ago but my parents’ divorce years earlier. How I envy friends or neighbors who go home to their still-married parents’ homes, often still the home they grew up in. My frustration at not being able to provide my son with a Norman Rockwell holiday is combined, I realize, with my continued frustration at not getting one myself.
Staging a holiday meal can be like planning a military campaign, only more political. All that sharing of the responsibility of cooking, even cloaked in convivial conversation, is tricky. For certain family members who shall remain nameless, things have to be done just a very particular way or it’s a disaster. And then there’s the adage, “if Mama ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy,” and it’s hard for overworked, sweaty mom, up to her armpit in a turkey’s butt, to stay happy while she slaves away and others kick back. Food is such an important part of holiday traditions, which is why families battle over whether the stuffing served at Thanksgiving is the wife’s mother’s recipe or the husband’s aunt’s hallowed formulation, or why kids stubbornly rebel if Mom tries to substitute or add a new food into the meal for health or variety or just her own sanity. It’s why for years I knocked myself out baking my late Nana’s sugar cookies and more recently I beat myself up for not having the time or energy to make them.
I do love that Thanksgiving is a truly national holiday not owned by any one religion, available to all Americans (with or without papers), celebrating this difficult but blessed family togetherness. It’s a good spiritual practice to sit down as one, say grace from whatever place of faith we hold, and then share what we’re thankful for. For those few moments, perhaps, everything shifts into perspective.
Ironically, the Thanksgivings that have been most stress free for me as an adult are the ones that were the least traditional, whether it was bringing Algerian foreign student friends home from college and them teaching my mom and me to make couscous, or when I was in Asia with expat friends cobbling together a traditional meal from the canned goods we’d brought with us, or with the air conditioning blasting in Dallas at a British home eating roast beef and Yorkshire pudding.
More recently, after a series of particularly wretched holiday seasons which left me depressed and my relationships with my relatives prickly, the past few years have improved because, well, I just somehow simultaneously loosened up and took control. Thanksgiving I order some of from a local market, and supplement with some favorite sides. Christmas a number of years back I told everyone I wanted to do the whole dinner myself, my way, and I took great joy in creating an Italian feast everyone loved. Every year since we’ve done a meal from a different country, and best of all my now-adult son cooks with me.
I think the trick with all these holiday issues is, stop trying to satisfy everyone else and decide to satisfy yourself. Kick Norman Rockwell and Martha Stewart to the curb, and invite imperfection and gratitude in.
[an earlier version of this post appeared as an essay in Washington Woman magazine]