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Reflections on a Non-Traditional Thanksgiving

I’ve always found Thanksgiving problematic. In my younger years, when I was bouncing back and forth between diets, it was pretty miserable to have this one day where you’re expected to overeat. And so while everyone around me ate more than I needed, without being judged, I couldn’t help remembering that every other day of the year, if I overate, I did get judged. It all felt rather hypocritical, and something like torture.

And it’s not a lot better from a mindful eating perspective. I can’t even tell you how many times I heard or read that everyone should just eat what they want on Thanksgiving without paying attention or worrying about the food.

Except I keep wondering, what exactly is the benefit of that? If this is supposed to be a special day, that I’m spending with family and friends, why do I want to feel overstuffed, uncomfortable, and lethargic? I guess it’s okay because you’re bloated and tired together? I must be missing something.

Then there’s the family aspect. Everyone expects you to spend the day with your family, and they’re always surprised if you don’t. Maybe they pity you. Or maybe they regard you with suspicion, like they wonder just how bad your family is if you’re not spending it with them.

Admittedly, I used to spend Thanksgiving with family. My aunt Patrice and uncle Marcel hosted and had a big meal, with so many people that we’d have to spread across two rooms. And in those days, the over-eating did have the benefit of making people too sleepy to argue much.

But after Mom died, it wasn’t the same. I think that’s why my brother, my niece, and I were happy to flee the country in 2005 for a very different Thanksgiving in England.

We spent it with a bunch of friends, still with plenty of the traditional foods, but it was certainly much more exotic and interesting than the usual routine. Plus, we got to see that year’s Harry Potter movie in England!

We traveled around like that for 6 years, and it seems like that should be a happy memory. Except it’s not, because my niece has now been estranged from the family for four and a half years. Now, thinking of those long-ago trips just makes me wonder what went wrong.

In the meantime, Patrice and Marcel had decided they were tired of the clean-up and effort of hosting, so my dad’s family started going out to a buffet lunch at a local hotel. They still do that, and I could have joined them on Thanksgiving this year if I’d wanted. But somehow, the Hilton doesn’t quite live up to places like London, Montreal, New York, or Paris.

Then there’s the fact that I wouldn’t be seeing my brother’s family (he’s now remarried with two boys at home) until the day after Thanksgiving because of scheduling issues.

And this year I couldn’t even follow my usual custom of going out to an Indian restaurant with friends because one of them was sick.

All this led to me feeling rather bitter a few days before Thanksgiving. Not bitter at my friend for being sick, or my family for having their own plans.

Rather, I was bitter about all the expectations piled onto the holiday by our society, and the fact that I was letting it get to me. I mean, I know everyone’s family has their own issues, and Thanksgiving is a good time to bring out the crazy uncle jokes. (And yes, I’ve got a couple of my own.)

But I guess I was feeling like things should be different, somehow. Like I should have a family who communicates better. For instance, I didn’t find out until the day before Thanksgiving that one of my mom’s sisters was hosting dinner and I could have potentially gone there. I also felt like maybe I should have a family that’s more expressive emotionally and would be sensitive to the fact that this time of year can bring up a lot.

I did have an invitation to join a friend from church who lives around the corner, but then I started worrying about food again. Would I feel pressured to eat a lot? Would she be offended if I only took small portions? Would I like the foods she had, given that I’m not a fan of the typical green bean and sweet potato casseroles?

Until finally, the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, I realized that I was making myself crazy. And for what?

So I sat down and wrote for an hour about all this. Missing my mom. Still feeling sad and betrayed and hurt about my niece. Also missing my aunt who died 12 years ago. Acknowledging the fact that I don’t have a Hallmark family, and I never will – but also that even if they’re not perfect, they do love me, and I love them.

And I also reminded myself that Thanksgiving is a construct. Whether I see my family or not on that day doesn’t mean that they’re bad people, or that I am. Especially since I do see them at other times – like the day after.

After going through a number of tissues, I finally felt better. And I realized that I just needed to acknowledge this complexity of emotion, and the fact that it’s not entirely unfounded. It’s not unusual, after all, to grieve missing family members at the holidays.

Then I could let it go.

I felt so much lighter after that, but even better, it meant that I was finally calm. I could relax about the holiday. I was grateful for what I had, instead of being bitter about what I didn’t.

And in the end, I guess that’s really what Thanksgiving is all about.

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