Where did this year go? Holiday decorations are already out, my day planner is almost fully consumed, and suddenly it’s time to get ready for Thanksgiving. This is an ideal time to start preparing, whether you are traveling or hosting. By ‘preparing’ I mean emotionally as well as structurally. Do a little each day, and make it easier on yourself when the big day comes.
One of the first things to do is to clarify your expectations. This can be tough because the marketing is always about togetherness and terrific food, yet the reality can be more like bare-knuckle boxing in front of a turkey-shaped bonfire. My personal tendency is to want to spend a full month planning the menu, a week meticulously detailing my house with a toothbrush and cotton swabs, and three days of cooking. Then I wind up stressing myself out so much that I have to go sit in a closet for a while before I can finish making the dessert.
This is one of the surprising advantages of living in a studio apartment. Absolutely nobody expects or wants you to host the dinner.
Holidays are the time to practice your utmost negotiation and mediation skills. It’s the fakery that makes it difficult, both pretending that everything is going to be “perfect” this time when you know it can never be, and pretending to get along with people who insist on stomping on your last nerve. Be real, at least with yourself, and certainly with your partner. Set those boundaries well in advance.
Emotional boundaries, acceptable behavior, that’s what we’re talking about. It’s your job to collect your relatives when they misbehave, and it’s your partner’s job to collect theirs. If either one of you takes your family’s side over that of your partner, well, that’s wrong. You have to stand up for each other. Or, you shouldn’t have to, but if it must be done, do it quickly and do it clearly. You want to stamp that sort of thing out before it has a chance to spread to future years.
Now is the time to practice diversionary techniques. Changing the subject is a last-ditch response to problematic conversation topics. It’s possible to stop that kind of trouble before it starts by planning around it. Play games, fill the schedule with non-sensitive topics, and shamelessly exploit any children or pets for their inherent cute factor.
I’m extraordinarily lucky with my family. Not only can we all talk politics together, but it’s often a conversation that makes us feel closer. Better than that, we have compatible food preferences. We can trust each other not to try to sneak in any dishonest ingredients. This makes it that much less fun, though, when I wind up visiting with anyone else who 1. lives to quarrel and/or 2. thinks it’s funny to trick people into eating things that make them ill. Dude, don’t take other people’s food issues personally; it’s not about you.
Here are some techniques I use to avoid explosive conversations and food battles:
Nobody is entitled to my opinion and I don’t owe anyone a debate on any topic, whether that’s what phone I use, whether I should supposedly follow a sportsball team, or what route would be optimal for my journey home, much less broader current events or social issues. I am fully, fully prepared to stand up for myself and give anyone the tongue-lashing of a lifetime, but when I’m at someone else’s party, I will do anything to efface myself and preserve harmony. Say it with me: a holiday party is not a debate. A HOLIDAY PARTY IS NOT A DEBATE.
Of course, politics isn’t the only emotional minefield. The holidays are a great time for bringing up grievances and old war wounds. I just say, “I agree,” and “you’re right” and “I’m sorry, I wish I hadn’t done that.” In a pinch, offer to go to group therapy with them and ask if they want you to schedule it on Monday.
If you’re hosting and you’re freaking out about getting your house ready, take a breath and plan now.
If I were doing it again in a standard-sized suburban house, I would focus one day on the dining room, one day on the living room, one day on the bathroom, and one day on the kitchen. Then I’d make myself stop and switch my focus to the shopping and prep work. I always do as much as possible in the two days before, whether that’s making stock, measuring ingredients, or washing and chopping vegetables. Then I think about how I can coast for a few days on my nice clean place and my fridge full of yummy leftovers.
Ultimately, Thanksgiving is a predictable event. That’s what people like about it. You probably know who will be there, how they will behave, what sorts of conversations they’ll bring up, and what they will or will not eat. After the day, you can go back to normal life. Try to make the most of it, because in its ideal form, this really is the perfect day for taking group photos, eating pie, and of course putting olives on your fingertips.
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.