Thanksgiving is upon us and Christmas looms. According to the songs, it’s the most wonderful time of the year and there’s no place like home for the holidays. Yet there is generally a huge spike in suicides about this time of year.
Let’s face it, for many of us the holidays are fraught with performance anxiety, angst, unrealistic expectations, dashed hopes, invidious comparisons, nasty competition, disappointment, rivalry, fear, and loathing. This is probably because the holidays ae a huge mash-up of conflicting needs, aspirations and expectations.
Holy, Holy, Holy: It is a period of religious and quasi-patriotic celebration which ought to be easy enough. Go to the house of worship of your choice and do what you’re supposed to do. It may fill you with spiritual joy. If so, good. It may seem more like a duty. If so, do it. That’s what you do with duties. Not everyone gets to feel holy. Don’t fret about it. God gets it. And if you aren’t religious, congratulations. That’s one item on the holiday to-do list you don’t have to worry about. Next.
Gimme, gimme, gimme: Of course, in capitalist, selfish, individualistic America, the holidays are really festivals of consumption with only vestigial religious connotations. Most of your attention will be devoted to buying things to give away, often to people whose tastes and interests you haven’t bothered to learn anything about. The perils are obvious.
The first step is to try to be rational. Since you don’t care enough to know what people want, why do you care what they think when you give them some crummy, inappropriate gift? In fact, why give them a gift at all? I know, I know, it’s expected of you. Do you see a theme developing?
The holidays are not about you having fun. They are about you making the holidays fun for others, largely by spending to juice the economy. To deal with the need to give to odd people you don’t understand, modern marketing has created the perfect solution – the gift card. Let the greedy so-and-sos buy whatever stupid trinkets they want.
Yes, you say, but there are still teeming mall multitudes and crash-test dummy parking lots to contend with – the pushing and shoving, the sweating and fighting over deals, the search for hot items in short supply, the crush of Black Friday. What is this, shopping or a rugby scrum? But once again, modern ingenuity has provided a solution which can be summed up in one word — Amazon. That’s right, now you can bankrupt yourself from the comfort and safety of your own home while wearing a bathrobe. Ideal.
And while you’re shopping online, you’d be wise to consider what your family members will be buying you. Almost certainly not what you actually want. They haven’t a clue. So you might just as well buy your own presents, gift wrap them and add tags that say, To: Me. From: Grandma — or Dad or Sonny.
Though some people may recoil from the notion, a similar strategy is available to streamline Thanksgiving and other holiday feasts. Everything from stuffing and gravy to pecan pie can be purchased pre-made – no fuss, no muss and no need to try to compete with Great Grandma’s legendary spread which coincided with the Great Thanksgiving Blizzard of 1956. What cranberry sauce the old girl could make!
And while we’re on the subject of eating and drinking, it is easily disposed of. You can feel guilty about how much you are going to consume between now and New Years’ Day when you wake up fat and bleary-eyed. But guilty or not, you are still going behave like a pig. The year-end Cholestival is not optional.
You’ll start with four or five thousand calories on Thanksgiving, then fall into a tryptophan coma in front of the football game. That will be followed by tens of thousands of calories more in cookies and chocolates, nog and grog, finger food, party trays, you name it. Just be ready to diet on January 2nd and try not to pass out drunk in a snow drift.
Ho,Ho,Ho; No,No,No: Now we come to the most emotionally wrenching part of the holidays, the big kahuna, the lurking horror – being locked up in a closed space for an afternoon, a day, a long weekend, even in dire cases a whole week with your relatives. And once again the crux of the problem is unrealistic expectations.
We have been led to expect something perfectly beautiful and heartwarming – a cross between a meal with Martha Stewart and a day with The Waltons. Fat chance. It’s your relatives. You know what kind of scenario they belong in, and it isn’t the heartwarming kind. It’s “Nightmare on Elm Street” or “The Addams Family,” or “The Bad Seed.”
Well, by now you know the holiday drill. This isn’t about joy or togetherness, it’s about duty and survival – sort of like the obstacle course at basic training. Nobody said that would be fun. So how do you navigate the gantlet that lies ahead?
Begin by assuming you won’t get your own way. This will take a huge load off. So who is in charge? In most wolf packs there is one alpha creature and you probably know who that is already. Cede control unconditionally. This may make everyone else miserable, but they won’t blame you. They’ll blame that pushy know-it-all who always has to run the show.
However, in some groups there are competing spheres of influence. Try to sort this out. Dad gets command of the TV clicker or the bar. Mom and grandma get to fight over control over the kitchen like Sunnis and Shiites. The parents of small children are in charge of them. When they completely abdicate their responsibility, resist the impulse to intervene to prevent anarchy. You’ll never get out of that quagmire. Instead, find a quiet corner, have some eggnog, hunker down. You can have the damage to the house and furnishings repaired in January. In short, it’s the Middle East – a lot of people who really don’t like each other and will never agree, related by blood, and jammed together in a small space with no hope of escape or resolution to age-old grievances.
Fake Hope and Charity: There are bright spots in this bleak landscape. When we were young, Thanksgiving was sitting at the kids’ table, being shushed, forced to listen to old fuds and bored silly. Later we got to be old fuds ourselves, able to bore others for the required minimum amount of time before hitting the highway. Now, we miss terribly all those vanished people, and wish we could have a do over. (Well, okay, we miss some of those vanished people). This is either the coming or wisdom or our glasses turning rose colored.
If the contrast between your personal holiday chaos and the beautiful ideal toward to which you are told to aspire is painful, there’s a solution. Inhabit the ideal. That’s why cheesy holiday books, songs, movies, plays and the like exist. So reread “A Christmas Carol.” Attend the zillionth version of “The Nutcracker.” Dial up “Remember the Night,” “Holiday Inn,” “Prancer,” “The Ref,” “Meet Me in St. Louis,” “We’re No Angels,” “Love, Actually,” “Home for the Holidays.” Clearly, you were stolen by gypsies as a child and left with your horrible relations. These lovely fictional people are your real family.
Two final tips. Turn off the TV news for the duration. It will only deepen your seasonal depression to hear about politics, traffic tie-ups, flight delays, terror in the so-called Holy Land and some lunatic’s attempt to blow up the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade floats. And not with helium.
And I would be remiss if I didn’t remind you that there’s a way to completely dodge all the holiday tsuris. Run away. My wife is a proponent of this approach. Simply go somewhere far from family, friends, office party, secret Santa, somewhere distant from western values and religious conventions – like a nice Asian cruise. Or Vegas.