Many folks spend thanksgiving alone. Some do not have family and friends nearby and are unable to travel to be with them on Thanksgiving. Others choose to spend holidays alone because attending a gathering is complicated by difficult relationships. Some folks work long hours and just want to take the day off. Others have to work. Just yesterday I spoke with an older woman who has limited mobility and declined an invitation to be with others because it is too physically taxing when she has to take more than a few steps between a car and her destination. There are many reasons why people may be alone on this holiday or others. Being alone on a holiday is neither rare nor problematic.
What is a problem are the expectations surrounding this holiday and others. I don’t know where it all started; maybe it was the iconic Norman Rockwell painting, or perhaps it goes all the way back to the legend of Native Americans and Colonists gathering around a table to share a meal. Whenever this idea that gathering over a meal with others is the norm on Thanksgiving originated, it is certainly reinforced by modern marketing and public sentiment. For many, this Rockwell-esque image may be a reality, but for equally as many there is no gathering and it is just another day of work or a bonus day off or a day to take advantage of sales.
The incessant images of people gathered around a table and the assumption that everyone will be relaxing and eating a big meal with others gets old real quick if that’s not your reality. The subtext of all these images and sentiments is that if you are not gathering with others and you don’t have the day off, you are doing it wrong. It can be a real downer for people who have to work or find themselves alone on the holiday for whatever reason – which is a lot of people. Millions.
I was invited to go with a friend to visit some family members and go out to dinner, but I demurred. Frankly, I enjoy being alone on holidays. I have roughly 360 other days each year to be with people. Yet, the first time I was alone on a major holiday I was super depressed because it seemed like everyone was with others except me. I felt that I had somehow failed because I was alone. Every television commercial reinforced this idea, with touching displays of affection between family and friends in the endless advertisements.
The truth is that most families find it stressful when they all gather together. If you have to travel to be there, it can be even more stressful. The nephew who chews with his mouth open, the father or uncle who has a few too many cocktails and acts like an ass, the brothers who inevitably end up arguing, and a nervous mother hovering over it all while trying to feed everyone. I know most of you can relate.
Thanksgiving is traditionally about celebrating a successful harvest. The so-called “first thanksgiving” was a celebration that lasted several days, back when people and animals did all the work. They needed the break. As our circumstances have evolved, Thanksgiving has become a day of general gratitude. It is possible to be grateful while not eating a big meal with annoying Uncle Bob. Some people are grateful just to have a job, regardless of when they have to work. It is not about the meal, it is about the attitude.
That older woman I mentioned that chose to stay home alone because of her physical limitations? She asked me what I was doing today because she thought she might be the only one who was going to be alone and was worried that it might be a bad thing. I reassured her that she was not the only one and that it is perfectly fine to spend the day alone. We talked about what we each had planned, and I sensed that she wasn’t completely convinced she had made the right choice. I bid her farewell, assuring her that I would see her again next week, and left her to grapple with her decision.
She felt bad for choosing to stay home. She was worried that she might be disappointing others. She thought it was unusual for people to be alone on Thanksgiving. Guilt and shame loomed large before her simply because she accommodated her own needs. I am sure that her decision was complicated by the expectations of those whose offer she declined. I hope that she has been able to let go of all of that and is enjoying her day.
I am tucked on the sofa with my pups, still in my pajamas at noon. My dinner is made. Later, I’m going shopping to spread some cheer among those who are working today. Maybe I’ll have an appetizer at a local restaurant and leave a big tip. You know, to show my gratitude.