How We Gather

A few decades ago, after another disappointing holiday, I decided my beliefs about celebrations might be the problem. As I studied holiday gatherings, I discovered that everyone, with or without a functional family, gets a blah holiday a third of the time, a miserable holiday another third of the time, and a happy holiday a third of the time.

My worst holiday was the one after my husband died on Dec. 21, 2001. On Christmas Day I was alone without plans. I eventually wandered next door to my neighbors. Bruce was in bed recovering from a hip replacement and Sue had crashed her car Christmas Eve, immobilizing her shoulder. We were all on pain meds. I went home.

The next Christmas was one of my best. I wanted to avoid the memories of 2001, so I went to London to be with my beloved paternal cousins. They live in a country cottage outside of London. We had a wonderful family-and-friends gathering with all the festive charm and grace that can be a Welsh/English Christmas. I felt welcomed and loved.

I remember my 30th birthday turned out well. I flew to San Francisco, had an espresso in North Beach, and walked the streets. Everything seemed possible that day. I was exhilarated at being alone, independent, free. I bought a secondhand patchwork velvet skirt because it was soft and vibrant.

Then there was the Thanksgiving in my 40s when my sister-in-law decided, at the last minute, that she preferred to invite her friends to celebrate and not our family. Until then we had always celebrated that holiday together. Her new tradition was okay with us, we respected her right to other holiday options, but we were left with no plans. The next year, after the friends divorced, we were invited again. Letting hurt feelings pass is both hard and at the heart of most holiday gatherings.

It took a long time, but these ideas helped me improve my holiday average:

  • Let go of the media versions of holidays. Close your eyes, breathe deeply, and think about what pleasures you the most: music, special decorations, scents, pie, a furry animal, a hand to hold. It is good to share all of this, but not essential.
  • Each one of us deserves the good sounds, sights, smells, and tastes we can create, purchase, or imagine. We do not need a witness to our lives. If you want company, ask yourself who do you like to be with? Who is available? How can you avoid cold relationships, snipers, and grumps?
  • You can go for a walk, volunteer to help others, or sit at your neighborhood bar. One holiday I was walking along Lake Washington when a tour bus approached. I had been a bit blue but I waved at the tourists. They became animated, excited, and waved back. It felt so good I went home happy.
  • If you have a functional family, one that can gather sober, you get the traditional gold ring. If the next generation is putting on the dinner, let go of control. You have been retired. Soak up the pleasures instead of managing. Play, talk, listen, watch, and eat everything. If there are some tricky parts, put on your flak jacket, tip toe around any eggshells, and respond to every word with genuine kindness.
  • If you don’t have a viable family, put together your own group, however temporary. It is easier than you may think. Just look around. Keep it small so you can talk, and make it a potluck so your guests can contribute. Put a vase on the table for everyone to bring a flower to represent who is away or gone. One year we ended up with a beautiful bouquet and two dog biscuits.
  • Save a seat for the stranger, and tell the story of “The Other Wise Man.” The seat may remain empty; the spirits will be full. While you eat, share stories of your best and worst holidays. Biologists report that telling personal stories makes our neurons fire rapidly and release oxytocin, the feel-good hormone. The mind lights up with fireworks when we tell our stories.
  • My last option is the “blob” celebration. If you are consumed by fatigue or pain, or you are alone, start with a bowl of buttered popcorn or ice cream, (make your own substitutions here), get in bed, use a towel as a napkin, and watch upbeat movies until you fall asleep. The holiday will be over.

With every year my ratio of good over bad holidays has improved. The next ones will be my best unless I lose, again, someone I love. But I now know I will be OK.

I’ve shared some of my stories. Now it’s your turn.

Jennifer James has a doctorate in cultural anthropology and a master’s in history and psychology. She was a professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the University of Washington Medical School. Jennifer is the founding mother of the Committee for Children, an international organization devoted to the prevention of child abuse worldwide.


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