It’s Okay Not to Be Happy This Thanksgiving

This is a repost of an original article I wrote for BlogHer. 

thanksgivingIn my Facebook news feed today, I saw one friend’s Christmas tree — and it’s early November — and another friend’s pumpkin pie recipe. Holiday decorations are out in the stores, and friends are talking about ordering their organic, free-range turkeys for Thanksgiving dinner.

Other friends are sharing cute stories about their kids’ Christmas wish lists and discussing where to find the best Santa for the annual photo op.

Magazines and websites I read are filled with articles about the upcoming holidays. Their headlines scream out for attention:

“15 Ways to Show You’re Thankful this Thanksgiving!”

 “How My Family is Showing Gratitude this Holiday Season”

“Set a Fabulous Thanksgiving Table that Says Thank You!”

And this is only a part of it. In the lead up to Thanksgiving, we’re surrounded by media coverage touting our need to embrace the holiday season. The headlines implore us to “talk about being thankful with our kids!” Or, “make an autumnal tablescape that features things you appreciate!” The accompanying articles urge readers to start baking and planning early for a “memorable and fun holiday!” The holiday onslaught, in other words, has arrived.

I find it all exhausting.

I can’t buy into the cheery optimism that gets promoted as the only way to celebrate Thanksgiving and the December holidays. For me, and for many others, the holidays are not a time to get out the glue gun for a DIY marathon or to dust off Grandma’s recipes for a cooking extravaganza. Instead, the holidays are hard. They can be painful, bringing up difficult memories. They can be scary, with their overwhelming expectations to connect and be immersed in conversation and celebration. They can be sad, with seats where loved ones once sat now empty due to loss.

The holidays should be a time for us all to be real. But they often aren’t.

To fix that oversight, I have a new campaign this Thanksgiving season. It’s called: “It’s okay to not be caught up in the holiday.” In other words, it’s okay to pass on mashed potatoes, football, and big gatherings. Do what you need to do to get through November and December. Not feeling the turkey vibe? That’s okay; make pizza. No desire to go to your great aunt’s house for the holiday dinner? That’s okay; do your own thing. No interest in being part of Thanksgiving at all? That’s okay; travel somewhere you’ve always wanted to go. If this means avoiding all the celebratory fanfare, that’s all right with me.

It’s not that I am anti-social — far from it, in fact. I love being with my family and friends during the holidays. I love apple pie and cranberry sauce. I love sitting in front of the fire, listening to family stories and catching up with people I haven’t seen since last Thanksgiving. When my family gathers on Thanksgiving Day, my husband’s über-talented cousins, aunt, and uncle bring out their musical instruments to entertain us all after dinner. Everyone sings, my kids dance. It’s magical.

But this Thanksgiving will be my first holiday without my mom. She passed away a few months ago after a long illness, and I’m therefore dreading November 26. It won’t be the same because she won’t be there.

The holidays will never be same again — just like every day is different now. The holidays magnify loss; they draw attention to what we have, and what is gone. Someday, it won’t hurt as much — I hope that’s true — but until then, I’d much rather stay under the covers on Thanksgiving and munch on some crackers.

Realizing how I feel about the upcoming holiday got me thinking that I might not be the only one who is looking at it this way. What if everyday is a struggle for you? There are so many reasons why that could be the case. What if illness prevents you from fully embracing life? What if family members are incarcerated or serving overseas in the military? What if you’re struggling to find employment or keep your family in a safe place to live? What if you don’t have what you need or whom you love with you this holiday?

You might then, like me, look toward Thanksgiving and wish that everyone around you would understand your reluctance to join the holiday hoopla. You might wish for a quieter approach to Thanksgiving. You might wish to be real, to talk about what’s hurtful and hard, to be honest about what’s in your heart. You might wish that the gratitude everyone talks about shared the stage with understanding and flexibility.

For you, for me, for anyone who’s struggling this season, I say don’t read those magazine articles that want you to perfect the world’s best stuffing and avoid the websites that call for you to bake for weeks on end. Do what you need: Be big with your joy, or not. Embrace the holiday crazy, or not. Not matter your choice, follow your heart.

And for the rest of you “but I just rented my Pilgrim costume” types, know that I love your commitment. I love how much you make this time of year part of your life. And I appreciate you knowing, this year, it’s just not for me.

  1. November 13, 2015
    • November 16, 2015
  2. November 26, 2015
    • November 26, 2015