Rethinking Your Rituals

Prevention Magazine . November, 2006
Sometimes the sanest choice for the season is to revamp your most cherished traditions

The first Thanksgiving that my ex-husband and I shared after ending our 25-year marriage was a strange ritual. He brought his girlfriend. I brought my boyfriend. Our two sons brought their girlfriends; our daughter (his biological child and my stepdaughter) spent the holiday in another state with her husband, son, mother, and grandmother. I remember sitting at my perfectly dressed table in a state of shock. Who had kidnapped my family and how had this motley crew taken its place?

Accustomed as I was to creating Norman Rockwell Thanksgivings, it had never occurred to me that I had the right to give it a rest. I could’ve accepted an invitation for the boys and myself to eat at the home of a friend. That, of course, would have left the ex and his date—in fact, all our dates—to fend for themselves. And that might’ve been just what we needed. Instead, every time I went into the kitchen, I’d think of happier times when the family was intact, and I’d cry into the mashed potatoes.

Twelve years have passed since my husband and I parted company, and these days, sharing the occasional holiday is fun. One reason is that I learned something that first Thanksgiving: The rules for family celebrations can change as our circumstances shift. In fact, the rules need to change if we’re to protect the happiness of our children, not to mention our own emotional, financial, and physical comfort.

It’s not just divorce that can require a change in expectations. Children grow up, families move, and bank accounts shrink and expand. But your celebrations can be just as homey and nurturing as ever—if you honor your new circumstances by establishing new traditions. Here are a few rules to hold to in times of change to ensure that Thanksgiving really is a time of thanks.

Celebrate in a location that works

My friend Bev, a widow, has three children, all of whom live in other states with their families. They’ve solved the puzzle of where to hold Thanksgiving by choosing the spot that requires the fewest people to travel. Those who live locally help subsidize the travelers’ expenses.

By setting reasonable geographic and financial boundaries and allowing everyone to help make these limits work, the whole family feels good. Even if everyone lives close by, it’s still worth considering which venue will protect the happiness of your family. Is there a very pregnant mom or a new baby? Bringing the feast to that house—or even better, picking a nearby restaurant—often results in less stress for the young family than traveling.

Expand the menu

If friends or relatives suddenly declare themselves vegetarians, you can either start calling turkey a vegetable or talk about how to negotiate that difference. I was a vegetarian for years, back when tofu was a mysterious food available only in exotic stores. So when I attended Thanksgiving at my brother’s house, I’d bring a tofu dish that other people might (or might not) like to try.

My brother didn’t have to cater to me, and the family didn’t have to forgo the traditional foods they looked forward to—but everyone could sample my rockin’ braised ginger tofu. If you’re a host, ask guests with special food needs to bring a dish they’ll enjoy, plus some to share. And if you’re the guest, make the offer. That way, you can add to the occasion’s pleasure rather than be a source of stress.

Make room at the table

You can count on the cast of characters at your family dinner changing over the years as significant others enter—and sometimes leave—the picture. But no matter how big or small the gathering, adding a stranger can be just what’s needed for the mix. I take great joy in inviting guests, often at the last minute, who have no place to go. I find that new and old family members bond as they make the guest feel welcome.

And most of all—learn to ask for and accept help

My mother could’ve given Martha Stewart lessons—her tables were always flawless and her feasts delicious. But she was too busy being a kitchen martyr to enjoy herself. That’s a pattern well worth changing. It honors your guests (and makes your life easier) to let them help before or after the meal. Clearing the table, putting away leftovers, and doing the dishes make everyone feel useful, and that’s an authentic reason for thanksgiving, an occasion for camaraderie—and yes, even fun.

Just be sure that when you put out the call for help, you do it in a way that will be heard. Studies tell us that women “tend and befriend” in times of stress—we like to chat with each other and take care of each other, both of which release oxytocin, the hormone of peace and bonding. Men tend to hole up in their caves—or in this case, on a cozy couch in front of a TV. So ask for what you need. If you know that the guys are going to be glued to the Thanksgiving football games, maybe they can do dishes before kickoff.

Thanksgiving is almost here. To help make your holidays rewarding, check in with yourself about what feels most nurturing for you and your family, and then communicate that clearly. Your rituals may look different than they used to, but gratitude and love can still flower. You can create memories that sustain your children and parents for years to come.

Tips for Happier Holidays

  • Be willing to create new family traditions Can’t get the clan together for Thanksgiving? What about instituting a Groundhog Day Weekend, complete with rituals that you invent together?
  • Respect the boundaries of other people They have a right to make the choices that are best for them, even if they’re not what you’d prefer.
  • Set aside a few hours during the Thanksgiving weekend to volunteer for service work Joy and harmony flow from the realization that we have much to be grateful for.

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