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Finding your way through the holidays
This season doesn’t have to be picture-perfect.
In 2017, the year my husband died, I celebrated two major holidays in two very different ways.
For Thanksgiving, I invited a big group of friends and family to celebrate at our—oops!—my house. Jamie and I had hosted Thanksgiving dinner for the past couple of years, and I figured doing it on my own would be a great way to honor him. I made the turkey, gathered enough plates and chairs for 13 table settings, and insisted to everyone that I was fine. Being surrounded by people would be the perfect antidote to grief, I said—to myself and anyone else that asked.
From afar, Thanksgiving 2017 looked like a triumph. Here I was, newly a young widow, honoring my gregarious, food-loving husband by surrounding myself with loved ones and culinary delights. Grief couldn’t keep me down! The table was beautiful, the Florida weather was idyllic, and everyone showed up with delicious dishes, beer, and stories to share.
On the outside, it was a perfect evening. But the next day, I felt more empty than ever. My heart hurt more than it had in a while. Not long after, I informed my family that I wanted to spend Christmas alone.
That first Thanksgiving without my husband brought back heavy memories of my family’s first Thanksgiving without my dad. In 2013, less than two weeks after his death, we gathered for dinner at my aunt and uncle’s house. At a glance, the scene looked like Thanksgivings past: there was the familiar china, the go-to side dishes, and the generous pours of whiskey. It was the same as every other holiday—except my dad wasn’t there. His absence was a jarring record scratch in a well-worn soundtrack. Everything was off-kilter that year.
My friend Katie recently described these outwardly perfect, but inwardly difficult times as back-of-the-postcard moments. She recently moved to St. Croix, a postcard-worthy island, but is struggling to adjust to life there—like we all do when faced with a major change. “I suppose I’m telling you this because I want you to know that the real story is on the back,” she wrote. “It’s the story that is being written behind the palm trees, the ocean waves, and the seductive siren song of endless summer.”
For many of us, the end-of-year holiday season has always been a time full of expectations. It’s rife with family traditions and societal pressures—an endless list of things to buy, do, and see. That pressure has grown as social media has become an inextricable part of our lives. It’s not enough to keep up family traditions; now, we aim to make those holiday rituals picture-perfect, so we can broadcast them to others.
But the images we share on social media don’t tell the whole story. The Thanksgiving I hosted as a new widow may have looked like a triumph over grief; in reality, the noise of that big, elaborate evening choked out any chance I had of listening to my heart.
Christmas 2017 was a stark contrast. It was just me and my dog, in a remote North Georgia cabin. I spent most of my time in bed. I cried more than I’d cried all year. I tortured myself by watching saccharine Hallmark movies, shouting at the TV when yet another small-town widower magically cured his sadness with a mistletoe kiss.
An outsider may have pitied me, all alone on the holiday you’re not supposed to spend alone. But that Christmas did more to heal me than most other experiences I’d had that grief-filled year. I listened to my poor, aching heart. I let myself mourn on my own terms. I treated myself to long, solo hikes. I cried without abandon, not having to worry about putting on a happy face for anyone else.
It’s Thanksgiving week here in the United States. On Thursday, we’ll crowd around tables, sharing mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, and a list of things we’re thankful for. We’ll perhaps acknowledge, but otherwise conveniently ignore the problematic history of the day, and instead opt for another serving of pumpkin pie. Before we know it, we’ll be thrown into the last and busiest month of the year, full of decorations, gifts, and expectations galore.
It’s been five years since my first holiday season as a widow, and I am undeniably back to participating in all the things. Just this weekend, I ordered our annual family-photo holiday cards. I’ve already started shopping for presents. I might write about taking seasons more slowly, but the Thanksgiving-to-Christmas stretch always seems to pass at a breakneck pace, and I willingly go along for the ride.
The truth is, I love this time of year. I love gathering with my family. I love twinkly lights. I love lighting candles and listening to holiday tunes. I love picking out special gifts and eating homemade baked goodies. I love the tradition and familiarity of it all.
Most of all, though, I love doing it on my terms. That’s what made Christmas 2017 feel like such a revelation. I didn’t have to perform holiday cheer, despite what society told me.
I think this is why some of us, secretly or not so secretly, enjoyed the respite that 2020 offered. For all of the disastrous things that year brought us, the escape from holiday obligations was an unexpected treat.
Now, we’re largely back to the way things were. And it might feel like not we’re doing it on our own terms.
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Not every Thanksgiving, Christmas, Hanukkah, or Kwanzaa (or whatever holiday you celebrate) will be a happy one. At some point, we’ll experience a holiday season that feels anything but cheerful. If there’s a meaningful gift we could give ourselves, it would be to take a break from festivities that year. Or, at least, to approach them with different expectations.
I realize that doing this is difficult, especially when you add children, demanding relatives, or religious obligations to the mix. But it’s not impossible. We can learn a lot from letting our hearts lead the way.
This Thursday, I’ll be sitting at my aunt’s dining room table. If it’s anything like past years, the evening will appear postcard-worthy. Unlike some past Thanksgivings, though, the story in my heart will match the scene.
No matter how you spend the holidays, I hope you honor both sides of the postcard. Don’t focus solely on the image you're presenting to everyone else. Your story matters, too. In fact, it’s the most important part.