I don’t post on holidays or weekends. This is my little gift to you. I want to make sure y’all know not to bother looking for new material, so you can spend the day relaxing and spending time with loved ones. The irony here is that I usually wind up working on holidays anyway, denying myself the break I’m offering to everyone else. It’s an expression of love. Of course, a more popular choice is pie.
Sugar is love. People will overtly state that baking is the way they show love. Or cooking is the way they show love. Or that particular recipes are the way they feel connected to family tradition. Everyone I have ever met has a set holiday menu in mind, and any deviation from it is unthinkable. Going through a holiday without those particular dishes creates a forlorn, empty feeling, an echo of the feeling we have when we can’t be with family on these hallowed days. I know that I feel that way if I don’t eat cake on my birthday, even though I don’t usually eat cake the rest of the year. I feel that way when my family is 1000 miles away, celebrating something without me.
In my family, the traditional menu was turkey, stuffing, rolls, mashed potatoes, peas, green beans, candied yams, fruit salad with whipped cream, and pumpkin pie. I had to put black olives on all my fingertips and show everyone. Also: pickles.
My husband’s family had lemon pie, berry pie, and chocolate pie. He hates pumpkin. You can easily see a problem here: we both have THE WRONG PIES. I mean, talk about lose-lose. The only way to win this game would be to have four pies. And then we would eat them. And then it would be gain-gain.
I never particularly liked Thanksgiving. In Oregon, the weather is dire by that time of year. It’s dark by 5 PM. My mom would make me eat at least one slice of dark meat. If we had a video and asked people to spot the future vegan at the table, it would be pretty easy to guess who it was. Speaking of deviating from traditional holiday menus! In fact, four out of my five nuclear family members quit eating meat back in the 90s, and three of us are vegan. We’ve been able to preserve the core of the holiday – family and a table-collapsing million-course meal – while eradicating most of its traditional elements. All of us enjoy cooking, and divvying up who cooks which course is part of the fun. I typically spend three days cooking, and by that I mean, eat breakfast, start cooking, and wipe down the counters at bedtime. What used to be a downer of a day for me is now something I can embrace.
Can we love each other without thirty pounds of food, though?
My husband showed up while I was working on this piece. I asked him, “What was that holiday when you gained a bunch of weight?” He laughed. “Which one? Disambiguation, please!” I explained why I was asking. “I gained 25 pounds between Thanksgiving and New Year” sometime in the early 2000s. (His top weight was 305). It looks as though most people gain 1-3 pounds a year, almost entirely over the winter holidays, and heavier people gain more. About 15% of the population gains more than 5 pounds. My honey is an outlier, although I’m sure he’s not alone. I’m half his size and I know I can certainly gain a pound a day. I also know that neither of us were any more likely to lose our “winter coats” than anyone else, until we decided to get serious and do something about it.
It starts with the Halloween candy. Then it’s the cookies and roasted nuts. Then it’s Thanksgiving dinner, which basically extends to three days by the time all the leftovers are eaten. This is immediately followed by more cookies, and breads, and fudge, and caramel corn, and who knows what else. We always sing the Smorgasbord song in the voice of Templeton the Rat from Charlotte’s Web. “Smorgasbord, orgasbord, orgasbord!” Then there are all the temptations of the mall food court; I’m convinced a lot of people only go gift shopping so they have an excuse to get a 300-calorie drink from that fishtailed lady I like to call the Green Sireen and a 900-calorie Cinnabon. Personally, I like candy canes. I like candy canes in a hot cocoa. I also used to like drinking Jolt Cola with a Red Vine for a straw, for what that’s worth.
Fortunately for me, I’m a distance runner. I live in a hot climate, and the winter holidays coincide with the best running weather. (The optimum temperature for running is 55 F). I can burn off a pound of fat every 38 miles, so by spring, I can pretty much dilute any thickness that has built up in my blood. Forget the thighs, it’s the arteries and the organs that concern me. I don’t overeat as much as I used to. I don’t overeat as much because I’ve finally learned that eating to a 10 out of 10 on the Hunger and Fullness Scale is physically painful. A 9 leaves me feeling headachy and sick. An 8 is bad enough to leave me feeling uncomfortable for hours. I don’t even eat to a 7 most of the time. I eat to a 7 out of 10 just often enough, on holidays and special occasions, to remind myself why I stop at one plate.
Some of us eat because we’re hedonists. Some of us eat because we’re absent-minded (raises hand) and we don’t really notice how much we’ve had. Some of us eat because we get seasonally depressed. Some of us eat because it’s a small compensation for putting up with our families. Some of us eat because we’re lonely and missing people we’ll never see again. Most of us eat because that’s what our culture does. We don’t know who we are outside the context of large quantities of food. It’s the ocean and we’re the fish.
I’m still trying to figure out how to do it. I’m still trying to figure out how to celebrate without stuffing myself like a macabre teddy bear. I keep reminding myself that I don’t actually have to make three dishes, an appetizer, and a dessert per guest. I’ve been getting little mash notes (smeared with mashed potato) from Past Self, scrawled with messages like ‘NO MORE CAKE!’ and ‘DON’T EAT THREE ROLLS!’ and ‘OW MY LIVER!’
It can be about other things. What if it was about donating to the local food bank? What if it was about inviting a lonely person to join the festivities? What if it was actually about gratitude, about celebrating abundance and prosperity? What if it was about getting together and looking at photo albums, or recording family history, or telling stories about our family trees? What if it was about making an alternative tradition, and banding together with others who’d rather not face the gauntlet of awkward-to-horrid family reunions? What if it was about reaching out to people of another culture, like the Wampanoag people did when the pilgrims came?
We are some of the wealthiest people in human history. We are so rich that we routinely throw away a third of our food production every year. We’re profligate. We can pause to notice our warm clothing, our blankets and soft beds, our ability to heat our homes on rainy nights. We can pause to feel grateful for our closest friends, for our family members who still live and breathe, even if it’s hard to have a satisfying conversation with them at times. There is a light at the hearth that we have kept lit for 125,000 years. We have banded together to survive the dark and cold. We have kept that spark of civilization burning. We have shared food and shared stories and shared body heat. We continue to gather together, even when it’s not always a perfect dream of family romance. It is my wish that you gather together with whomever sits around your hearth, actually or metaphorically, and feel glad to have them.
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.