On Celebrating Thanksgiving Without Family & Enjoying It

This last week, the posts on Facebook are getting more popular:

“I’m alone for the holidays. What do I do?”
“I have no family to spend Thanksgiving with.”
“I hate Thanksgiving, I have nowhere to go.”
“It’s just the three of us for dinner, should I even cook?”

I see them and I feel bad. I want to invite them all to my home for dinner, even if I run out of turkey and we eat crackers and cheese. I don’t even need to know them that well, I just hate to hear of anyone being alone on a holiday when they don’t want to be.

I’ve been there.

I’ve had friends invite us when no one else is willing to tolerate my autistic son.

Friends have brought over food when my daughter had another severe seizure and we ended up at the hospital all night, ruining chances for us to cook a meal.

We’ve hosted a stragglers dinner, where all of us are family-less and we don’t want to spend the holidays alone.

Still, not everyone has those options and that makes me sad.

Having four kids, we’re kind of a built-in crowd even when we spend it with no one else. I still have to cook a big turkey and quite a few sides, and one bottle of sparkling cider isn’t enough. It’s noisy and we max out our regular dining table chairs. This couldn’t make us happier or more proud. Having a family that enjoys spending these chaotic days together makes up for not getting on a plane for a big family trip or not getting invited to the in-laws. In fact, we like it so much, I don’t miss those chances anymore. I don’t need to buy a plane ticket or tote hot food across town for it to feel like the holidays.

How did we get there, where our own immediate family is enough? Even if there were less of us, I think we’d still be okay.

Celebrating Thanksgiving Without Family

First, Thanksgiving isn’t my favorite holiday. I like it — it’s my one chance for a judgment-free sweet potatoes covered with marshmallows-fest. I watch the parade. The guys watch the game(s). We spend hours in the kitchen experimenting with dishes and if they don’t work, it’s okay. Now if that happens on Christmas, watch out. That’s the day that matters to me. Thanksgiving is more a signal of things to come, an official entry to Christmas, the sign that it’s okay to listen to Christmas carols, and a reminder that I can put up my tree and start splurging on my loved ones and friends. So if symbolism counts, then it’s important, but I’m thankful for things on a regular basis so I don’t need the day.

Maybe that’s a product of not having big family travels. I wasn’t raised in a family-first environment, and I spent way too many years at the kids’ table even when there was space with the ‘adults.’ Maybe that’s what ruined it? Who knows, but onwards. It’s only one day a year.

Still, now that I have kids, I want their memories of the holidays to be good. Our Thanksgiving traditions are pretty simple, but still, we repeat them. We enjoy them. It is what makes the holiday something special. And traditions can be everything, a way to be grounded, a goal to reach for, a way to be excited when a kid asks for dad’s famous mashed potatoes or to watch the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade in my Marvel apron, spiked egg nog in hand.

I was in the military years ago, and I remember the year I was in basic training in New Jersey. I’d gotten sick and it ended up being pneumonia. I was not allowed to leave the base until I was declared well, and I ended up hospitalized. I was so sick, so feverish, I almost didn’t care, but there was still envy when my fellow soldiers came to say goodbye on their way to the airport. My family hadn’t bought me a ticket, so I had nowhere to go anyway. Even my CO felt bad for me — being the pity case really does suck — and gave me three days free liberty, and he told my “range buddy,” my assigned partner during training, who then bought me a ticket to go home with her to Norfolk, VA, when I was released. It was a long way from California, and while I was excited to get away from base, I remember thinking how weird it was to not be with my family for the first major holiday ever. I had been widowed a few months before, and my pay wasn’t accessible so I was at their mercy. There was a little embarrassment, too, and not being worth the money to my parents. Some things stick with you.

I won’t let that happen to someone if I have the chance, but if you’re still stuck somewhere without a family, it’s not the end of the holiday. Look at it as something different, and maybe even a new beginning.

Do it your way. This is your chance. Want to eat ham on Thanksgiving? DO IT. You can shape your own menu, the start of your own tradition. Even if you don’t do ham again, the tradition of making whatever you want has started.

A lot of people go watch movies. That feels weird to me, but if it’s what makes your day special, DO IT. Find what makes it fun for you and enjoy every single second of it! This year, we’re having two Thanksgivings. On the real day, I’m really tempted to order Buca di Beppo and make my own Disaronno margaritas while mapping out our early-morning Black Friday shopping.

Speaking of Black Friday shopping, that’s another tradition. We’ve been doing it for years and I see no reason to stop. Even if we don’t score on anything major, we always score, even if it’s just flannel sheets for our own bed or a fun pancake breakfast. We don’t shop on Thanksgiving, but I have purchased a few deals while everyone else is snoozing on the couch after pie.

Check in with long-distance people. Skype, Facetime. You’re not alone ever with all the technology available now.

Recreate a fond memory from childhood. If Thanksgiving makes you think of post-dinner walks through the neighborhood with a cup of cocoa, do it.

Splurge a little. Buy a new game for family game time. Get a new fire pit so you can sit outside. Buy matching onesies and take silly photos!

Take goodies to your neighbors. Don’t undervalue the enjoyment of a few minutes of chit-chat outside of the house!

Enjoy the quiet. There is nothing wrong with one day of complete “ahhhhhh”-ness, where you read a book, laying in sweats and eating things you don’t ever eat otherwise. Don’t let loneliness or sadness make it impossible to find the good in the day.

Use the good dishes. Pull out the crystal wine glasses. Eat with expensive silver, even if you have to wash it later. (And how often do you use things if you never want to clean them?)

Invite the newest member at work whose family is cross-country. Invite the neighbor who can’t afford to go see her kids out-of-state. Invite the single mother of one of your kids’ friends who will be alone this year as her ex has visitation. Even if it’s a Breakfast Club type of group, you’ll never forget the year that you made it so a lot of people weren’t alone.

Whatever you do, don’t let “..but it’s just the two of us” ruin it. There’s still two of you. Make it special. Make memories. That’s what it’s all about.






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One Comment

  1. Thank you. Your “non”-family sounds so uncaring. That’s where I’m at this year and have been for years. Still looking for something special to do since she’ll be missing her cousins this year. She’s allowed, I am not, therefore I am not going with her. Long story. We are volunteering and who knows what else. I want her to have young people to play with, not just a dinner.

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