OPINION: My pandemic lesson — it’s OK to stay out of the holiday frenzy

A lot of time goes into the traditional Thanksgiving feast. AJC File

A lot of time goes into the traditional Thanksgiving feast. AJC File

This year at Thanksgiving, I’ll be staying close to home and enjoying a small dinner with close friends and family.

Life has been moving at a frenetic pace. I want to take this moment to slow down and have a different experience that doesn’t involve battling crowds on the road or in the airport. I hope it will be an opportunity to really connect with people important to me without all the craziness.

Pandemic year 2020 marked the first time I departed from the Thanksgiving tradition of big celebrations with extended family or friends. Instead, my daughter and I prepared and feasted on roast duck, mac and cheese, Brussels sprouts, stuffing and pumpkin pie. No guests. Just us. After dinner, my neighbors and I had a champagne toast over the fence.

We were forced then to learn how to do things differently and to appreciate the small yet significant moments in life. Before, I hadn’t acknowledged this: So much of what we do around the holidays is led more by expectation than what’s truly meaningful.

When I was younger, Thanksgiving celebrations usually involved large gatherings at someone’s home. This tradition carried over into adulthood. I would bring wine, a dish or a gift to the homes of co-workers, friends or friend’s relatives whenever I couldn’t be with my parents in Chicago.

I mostly enjoyed these gatherings, but I’m certain that, before accepting those invitations, I never truly asked myself if there was something else I’d rather be doing.

In talking with friends and family, it seems I’m not the only one reevaluating how I spend the holidays.

One friend will be alone on Thanksgiving — by choice. She plans to order a turkey and relax at home. For her, it’s a chance to decompress, reflect on the past year and plan for the future.

My sister and her family are celebrating Thanksgiving at a beach house for the first time, seeking a change of pace and different surroundings. The hustle and bustle of the holiday had begun to feel like an annual chore rather than a moment of appreciation, she told me.

She is even considering ordering their Thanksgiving meal. If you knew my sister and her husband, you would know that’s a big deal.

Another friend, worn out from travel and an unrelenting work schedule, is stepping back from the traditional dinner with a gaggle of family and friends for a smaller gathering designed to restore sanity and relaxation to the holiday season and to life in general.

We Americans have historically viewed ourselves as a nation of pioneers and explorers, and Thanksgiving has always been a big part of that narrative. It is, after all, a survival story about making one’s way in a new place.

In my family, we are the descendants of enslaved people, immigrants and Black American migrants — all who moved away from their homes, by force or by choice, and set about making a life for ourselves in unfamiliar places.

For us, as for many Americans, the holidays have been celebrated by reuniting. Thanksgiving remains the second most traveled holiday after Christmas.

Maybe it’s time we give ourselves permission to stay out of the frenzy.

Most of us are at least marginally aware of how the story of the first Thanksgiving has been sanitized and packaged as a tale of unity between pilgrims and indigenous people, as demonstrated by a big welcoming meal.

Historians have theorized that the event wasn’t as important to people at the time as it was later depicted.

But mythology is a powerful tool when you are trying to unite a nation, and Abraham Lincoln was willing to engage in a little subterfuge to pull the country together during the Civil War. So Thanksgiving became a national holiday that many of us have felt compelled to celebrate in specific ways.

One 2022 study found that 49% of Americans feel stressed out during the holidays. Money, travel and family dynamics were some of the top sources of anxiety. I’m pretty sure that isn’t what Lincoln had in mind.

This year, I want to experience Thanksgiving in the way that feels most authentic at this moment. And I want to allow that to change from one year to the next.

If you’re cooking for days, cleaning nonstop and preparing for another huge holiday gathering, I hope you are doing it because it feels right.

If it doesn’t feel right, I hope you feel empowered to try something new.

Whatever your choice, embrace it. Enjoy it. And be grateful for it.

Read more on the Real Life blog (www.ajc.com/opinion/real-life-blog/) and find Nedra on Facebook (www.facebook.com/AJCRealLifeColumn) and Twitter (@nrhoneajc) or email her at nedra.rhone@ajc.com.

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