Within my extended family, dysfunction is just as common at Thanksgiving time as my mother’s beloved pumpkin pie. Every year, around mid-November like clockwork, my mom calls to let me know that, once again, our family and my grandparents have not been invited to spend Thanksgiving with my uncle and his family, who live less than ten minutes away from us.
Growing up I never noticed the familial tension, and only found it a little odd when we spent one Thanksgiving meal seated at a four-person folding table in a different room than everybody else. But in my last years of high school through present day, the awkwardness has become tangible, taking the form of clenched jaws, too-tight handshakes, passive-aggressive remarks and heated arguments over the phone.
While there is no substitute for the joyous and family-oriented celebrations we typically associate with the holiday season, there are some ways to help combat the despondency that comes with the winter season.
The past few years my family has chosen to celebrate our own way, rather than wasting our time wallowing over our family’s fractured relationship. We host other stragglers — small families and people who can’t make it home to be with their families, as well as my grandparents and even the occasional foreign cousin passing through town. But this year is different, and there will be noticeably empty seats at the table. I will be spending my first Thanksgiving away from home in London; divorce has struck some of our usual members; my grandfather has died. It is hard to feel excited about a holiday centered around giving thanks when it seems that your own family doesn’t want you around and when your few remaining traditions are turned upside down.
The holiday blues seem to strike in different ways. Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s can leave people feeling more anxious and alone than ever. This pronounced sadness often hits people who are unable to be with loved ones during the holidays, those who do not have good relationships with family or no family at all, among others. While there is no substitute for the joyous and family-oriented celebrations we typically associate with the holiday season, there are some ways to help combat the despondency that comes with the winter season.
Quite possibly the most crucial (and millennial) way to avoid the FOMO of the holiday season is to try avoiding social media or at least minimizing its use. Instagram and Facebook can paint unrealistic portraits of seemingly-perfect celebratory gatherings, when in reality every family has its issues. Whether or not you know that these posts and photos are simply a highlight reel as opposed to a holistic view, seeing this content displayed in your newsfeed can still lead to deep pangs of sadness and jealousy. Avoiding your phone is easier said than done, but it is important to bear in mind that there is no such thing as the quintessential family.
Making your own traditions during the holiday season is another excellent combatant to the seasonal sadness. My familial dysfunction is no secret amongst my friend group, and they act as a wonderful net of support when I’m feeling particularly down around the holidays. Reaching out to friends is a helpful way of coping and can even yield new holiday traditions. In the past, I have gone out with friends on Black Friday to scour Los Angeles for deals and to try on the ugliest clothes we can find. Often times I spend New Year’s Eve with my best friend’s family, who often feels more welcoming than my own. Leaning on friends and their families for support during the holiday season helps dull the pain of not having a traditional experience. While I may not spend Thanksgiving with my whole family as I did growing up, I have made a new tradition of cooking on Thanksgiving day with my parents. Making apple pie and mashed potatoes with my mom and jamming to Prince in the kitchen with my dad have become pretty good substitutes for the celebrations of my childhood.
Acknowledging the feelings of emptiness and grief that oftentimes accompany this time of year is crucial to overcoming them.
Do not forget that there is life outside of your home during the holidays. Finding something exciting to do in your town can be a very helpful form of socialization that cannot be achieved when locked up at home all day. Even doing something alone is good; this year on my first Thanksgiving spent on another continent, I will go see my favorite band perform in London. Whether you just take a walk around the block, go to the gym or go out to see a movie or concert, breaking out of the bubble of your home serves as a reminder that life exists outside of all of the holiday cheer. Resisting the urge to sink further into the negative feelings often associated with this time of year is the first step to setting yourself back on your path.
The first holiday season after losing a loved one is also particularly difficult, and it is perfectly acceptable to be upset about it. Seeing people spending the holidays with their families while you are still reeling from a loss exacerbates the feelings of grief. Leaning into these feelings of absence can be cathartic, as can honoring your loved-one in some form of tradition.
There is more to the holiday season than the twinkling lights, festive decorations and turkey dinners. Acknowledging the feelings of emptiness and grief that oftentimes accompany this time of year is crucial to overcoming them. Whether you don’t feel accepted by your family, are experiencing a loss or just feel down for no reason, know that the holiday blues are widely felt.
Hannah Jackson hopes that Gauchos who struggle during the holidays feel empowered to create new traditions.