All of It
How to have a hard holiday
Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday for the same reason New York is my favorite city: It’s outcast-friendly.
As the only child of a single mother, Christmas felt like an elaborate concept that was too awkwardly large to fit around us, like using a pair of oven mitts to keep your hands warm.
There just weren’t enough people in my household to create a holiday scene worthy of a pancake mix commercial. My attempts to create traditions I saw on TV fell flat. The holiday always felt like it belonged only to families with three children in matching pajamas and a golden retriever.
But Thanksgiving welcomed all sorts of odd traditions: staying at home to watch the parade, inviting over a ragtag group of friends, ordering take-out and watching one of a few Thanksgiving movies (Planes, Trains, and Automobiles and Pieces of April…am I missing any?). One year my mom and I cooked turkey and put it in sandwiches to pass out to people living on the downtown streets.
All experiences of the “what do we do again?” holiday felt valid, without a pancake mix commercial structure to fit into.
I’ve been especially thankful for this the past couple years, as my Thanksgivings have gone from weird to weirder. The 2020 holiday season was the most depressing of my life, and found me wandering the streets in an effort to avoid my sadness-saturated apartment, listening to Tom Waits and other musicians you only play when you’re hanging on by a thread.
The next year was significantly better, but still had an Island-of-Misfit-Toys feel to it at an Italian restaurant, and a sense of “Why exactly are we doing this?” Interesting how meaningful a holiday can be some years, and how almost silly it can feel other years.
This one will be of the silly variety. Maybe just like you, some parts of my life right now are wonderfully unremarkable. There are others that are dreams come true. And there are others that are really awful, and make me cry every night. The holiday season has a dark shadow over it, and I’m already bracing myself for sharp pains even as I write cheerful cards.
My friend Sarajane recently wrote a book with soulful advice for each Enneagram type. For mine, she acknowledged that being commanded toward gratitude in the midst of a complaint was probably a useless exercise.
Saying “My job is really hard right now, and I’m feeling stuck, and if I have to listen to my coworker floss her teeth at her desk one more time I’m going to lose my whole entire mind….BUT I’m grateful to have a job!” doesn’t end up meaning much. The complaint is dismissed by the gratitude proclamation, and the thankfulness seems, hm, a little disingenuous.
Sarajane suggests that if we want to make space in our words for the acknowledgement of good fortune in the midst of the hard stuff, we’d be much better off to use the word AND rather than BUT.
Here’s how that would go:
My job is really hard right now, and I’m feeling stuck, and I have to listen to aggressive flossing, and I appreciate that I have steady employment, and the office vending machine has my favorite chips.
“And” unites all the thoughts and feelings into a mushy multicolored side dish worthy of a Thanksgiving plate.
Even as a ritual-lover, I’ve long believed that holidays do more harm than good. They’re probably torture for most, and really adored only by a small population, and even then there will be hard years for them too. They amplify all emotions, and mine are already amplified all the time! I’d rather just skip the crazed overdrive, so long as I can still keep the strings of green and red lights that drape in crooked lines over Brooklyn blocks.
Now, I’ve softened my stance. I’ll support Team Holiday, so long as we can all agree that holidays are the ultimate “AND” situation. The and-ness begins with the holidays’ histories themselves: We all know that “the story of Thanksgiving” wasn’t exactly a picnic; we also know that it’s morphed into a ritual that has its own special meaning across American cultures (see the lovely portrayal of this in Master of None’s Thanksgiving episode).
Christmas has certainly taken on a life of its own, to say the least, but its beginnings are as chaotic as my ornament box:
Here’s the origin story, more or less: The folks of olden times had expected the Messiah to arrive with a lot of pomp and circumstance, or maybe a big laser light show in the sky, or probably a flashy musical number with sequined blazers and miniskirts made of fringe.
Instead, according to Christians, the Messiah’s debut was announced by a lone star over Judea, in the midst of much tumult and mourning.
While he was expected to inspire immediate peace and end to suffering, Christ's birth instead inspired the local king to kill all baby boys under the age of two. Not what the townsfolk had in mind.
I once read an essay written by the father of a girl my age who was hit by a truck and killed while biking home from her job at a coffee shop near my apartment. The father wrote five pages of memories of his daughter, from the time she was a baby up until the day she died, and concluded by lamenting that he was not able to stand in front of the truck and protect her.
"I ache," he wrote, "I howl."
"I howl" reminded me of this nature show I watched once about elephants. The show claimed that elephants experience powerful emotions, which is most evident when they are in mourning. After one of the elephants was killed by poachers, the entire herd immediately gathered around the body in a large circle. Then they started stomping their feet and crying, only their cry was enormous and lingering, a unified sobbing like the howl of wolves. It didn't sound like any noise you'd expect could come from an elephant; it was so loud and terrible and sad.
I imagine that all of Judea erupted in loud terrible sad howls from mothers as King Herod's army killed these baby boys; I imagine a chorus of these howls that soared into the sky and pierced the clouds and brought down sheets of rain for days and days.
I imagine the baby Jesus, safe in the arms of his refugee parents who escaped the massacre by fleeing to Egypt; I imagine his gentle whimpering against the faint echoes of the howling audible all the way from Judea.
This wouldn’t make for a good pancake mix commercial.
We’ve really sanitized these very oddball, often devastating stories into heartwarming scenes that now leave a lot of people and feelings out.
Christmas never felt like a holiday that I could fully participate in because I didn’t have siblings or a golden retriever, or an extended family that wore matching pajamas, or a dad who knew how to make pancakes, or a dad present for that matter.
But I have ached and howled, or I’ve at least been very sad. I’ve also been safe, and gently hopeful. I’ve felt all of it, on Thanksgiving and on Christmas and on many other days.
It’s tempting for me to get resentful toward this holiday season for its enforced happiness, when I really just want to bury myself in a blanket fort until it’s over and the bleak midwinter will welcome my emotional state more wholeheartedly.
But I don’t want to do that, because I really do like those crooked strings of lights, and Thanksgiving is still my favorite holiday, and I guess I’ll still take any opportunity to catch a thrill of hope.
And and and. And some more. The howling accompanies the hope; the gratitude is friends with the grieving. And this, and that. The devastating origin stories that transform into togetherness and special meaning. The favorite mashed potatoes and the store-bought pumpkin pie and the loneliness and the relative who’s surprisingly wonderful this time. The ache and the howl and the baby and the shadow. All of it belongs on my Thanksgiving table.
Which outcast emotions are you making room for this holiday season? Or are you perfect??
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