Holiday Survival Guide for When Life is Craptastic

7 years ago
Pilgrim couple

This is apparently the version of Thanksgiving that they teach in kindergarten: the Mayflower came filled with smiling pilgrims who all wore cool hats and shoes with buckles. Wait, no, they were also sad because they had no toys. When they got here, they realized that they didn't know how to farm this strange new land (because, apparently, dirt is different over here vs. England), but their new friends -- the native Americans -- taught them. In the winter, they were sad and homesick, and some of the pilgrims were even very ill! But they sat down with their new friends -- those native Americans -- and made a big dinner to say thank you and celebrate the fact that they were here in a new land. (Though my daughter asked a good question: how does killing animals and making someone else eat them say "thank you?") They were all happy and sang songs and even did a few dances around the table.

The End.

And that Thanksgiving story is precisely what makes us feel like shit when we come to our own Thanksgiving table feeling less than stellar when our life is craptastic. As kids, we're told this sanitized version of events because can you imagine your kindergarten teacher telling you the truth?

That out of the 103 pilgrims who came over on the Mayflower, only 53 were alive for that meal? And only 4 of them were women, so good luck with that re-population effort, my friends. And those new friends, the native Americans? 90% had died of leptospirosis a few years before the Mayflower landed. They couldn't defend their land because there were so few of them still alive. The pilgrims robbed the native American graves for corn stores, creating a strange tension as they tried to build a relationship with the remaining native Americans. But yes, they did sit down for a three day feast that included wild turkeys and deer.

So with all of that shit going down, are you honestly going to tell me that the coping mechanisms of the pilgrims was so fierce that they were able to set aside that small fact that half of their compatriots (as well as spouses, children, or parents) were dead and they were across the sea from anything familiar and grin through the feast?

Are we honestly expected to believe that the pilgrims didn't bitch about the cold or the fact that they were eating corn that had been in the ground with corpses a few days earlier or the fact that their loved ones were dead -- that they smiled and thanked G-d that they were alive, and we're all supposed to set aside anything we might be feeling and just talk about how freakin' thankful we are? That we're supposed to become Suzy Sunshine for one day of the year and grasp to find silver linings in our life even if we've just lost someone we love or were downsized from our job or had a miscarriage or broke up with our partner.

Well, call me less self-actualized than the pilgrims, but I can't set aside everything that is happening in my world when I sit down to a dinner table -- even if it's a dinner that took several days to prepare and the table is populated by people I love (and who love me back regardless of my mood). I can't let it go, and frankly, I don't really believe that the pilgrims let it go. But I do think we do a world of damage when we perpetuate that myth and teach it to our kids.

They should know that sometimes things suck, and sometimes, you have to feel what you're going to feel while things suck. That it's okay to mourn and it's okay to cry and it's okay to not pull yourself up by the bootstraps based on someone else's timetable rather than your own. And that sometimes, when you push yourself to do something, you find that you actually derived a great deal of peace from the experience. Such as sitting down at the Thanksgiving table when you're sort of dreading being around people.

Every year, I write a Holiday Survival Guide because I think that everyone experiences something in life that makes a particular year or set of years difficult for them. That for every holiday season that you enjoy and look forward to participating in, there is also a time in life where you dread all the reminders that come with a holiday season and wish you could avoid the whole thing. And this year may be that time for you.

You can sit out of the festivities if that's what you need to do, but a survival guide is sort of like holding your breath to eat (you know, so you don't taste anything) when your mother asks you to try lima beans. Like slimey green lima beans, going to events is usually good for you, and it's important to be around people who care about you when the going is tough. You just may need a trick for getting through family time just as mouth-breathing (and not tasting) works for choking down undesired foods.

I'll offer up the same advice I gave the last year two years with additional notes from comments that came on those old posts:

  • Create your own incentives and treat getting through the holiday season as your job. Pay yourself in whatever will make you happy. For instance, after a trip to the local mall to have your picture taken with your niece and Santa, pay yourself with a manicure. Attending the holiday party from hell may win you an entire bar of chocolate. It’s worth setting up small incentives and budgeting for your own happiness because it can be something to focus on during the task at hand.
  • You know the idea that you can take a large school and make it small but you can’t go the other way around? Flip that concept when it comes to the holidays: take a small part of the holiday and make it big. Focus on something that you can do and make it your contribution to the holiday season. If you know celebrating Christmas will be too much, make sure you throw yourself wholeheartedly into helping prepare Thanksgiving (and then develop an unfortunate case of the stomach flu on December 24th). If you can organize the family gift but can’t fathom how you’ll do Christmas dinner, make sure you send out an email to your siblings early asking for photos of your nieces and nephews so you can design a great picture calendar for your parents. And then skip the ham.
  • Do all your shopping online instead of subjecting yourself to walking past the displays of toys and Christmas baby clothes at the store. Keep it simple this year – you have a lifetime to plot out the most fantastic gifts of all time. This may be the year that you need to buy a DVD or book for each person your list and be done.
  • Leave a note in your pocket: write a note to yourself, ask a friend to jot something down, trade letters with your partner, or simply leave a list of names (therapist, fellow bloggers, the friend you’ll drink with the moment you get home) in your pocket to touch as a reminder that someone has your back when you begin to feel overwhelmed at the holiday table. I can’t be with you at your Christmas dinner (the whole Jew and vegetarian thing aside, I just don’t think your family is going to be cool if you drag along a random blogger), but I can give you a note right now to keep in your pocket. Simply print this out and whenever you get overwhelmed, touch it and remember that there are people out there who get you. And change the line about mini hot dogs if you’re a vegetarian:

Hey Sweetie:

I know it was really hard to come to this party/dinner/get together but now that you’re here, you’re even closer to it being over. Try to enjoy yourself, but if you can’t, nip into the bathroom for a cry or bury yourself at the buffet table and do nothing but eat mini hot dogs for the rest of the night. There is no shame in enduring rather than enjoying and you need to do whatever you need to do to get through this without ruining any relationships. Make sure you take time for yourself today/tonight after you get home. I’m here on the other end of the computer if you need me.


  • Pick and Choose: there is no rule that says you must attend every event during the holiday season – even if you’ve gone to everything in the past. If it’s going to cause more grief than it's worth, just attend the event. But if you can get your partner to “surprise” you with a holiday trip, all the better.
  • Book: I actually include a lot of ideas like these in Navigating the Land of If to get through life in general; not just holiday. I'm just saying.
  • I will tell you the only trick I have up my sleeve: the holiday card. Most holiday cards we receive are either generic package-of-12 types or pictures of kids/families. We send out cards every year that routinely get responses that it was the best card they’ve gotten all year, or sometimes the best card ever. Sometimes one fabulous photo of us in some fabulous locale; sometimes a whole series around the world (which it will have to be again this year). We used to just have a normal photo card, but now we include a newsy update of career progress and travels. The people with kids (or limited funds, or limite outlook) say, “Wow, your life is amazing. I’m stuck here at home.” I’m not trying to make them feel envious of us, but envy is way better than pity. –Baby Smiling in Back Seat
  • All of our friends have been sending photo X-mas cards in the past years. In previous years, we’d send an awesome vacation photo. Like- heh!- we still had fun this year!–Mrs. Spock
  • One tip I figured out early on: If you can’t shop online & have to go to the mall, find out what hours Santa will be there — & then go when he’s not around. There won’t be as many kids & babies around to deal with then. –The Road Less Travelled
  • I manage to work in a reference to Katie in every edition of our Christmas letter … usually in relation to our volunteer work. But I like being able to remind people that she was real & is still a part of our lives. My Christmas card itself usually has either an angel or Classic Pooh theme (which was also the theme of her nursery). I know other people who use angel stamps on their cards as a subtle reminder of their lost baby(s). –The Road Less Travelled
  • This year I solved my problem in the cowardly fashion … I offered to work. I work at a domestic violence shelter, which is open 24/7 … So I figure I might as well. I can get paid double time as well, so it’s all sorts of awesome. –An Unwanted Path
  • I started listening to holiday music in August this year. I’m using it as my own private technique for connecting with the joy of the season early enough that I won’t suddenly get trampled in the crush of child-centric images, events, and conversations coming my way during the actual season. I want this year to be different! –Lisa
  • Instead of focusing on what I can’t handle, I’m heading into the season excited about the possibilities of the new traditions TH and I will make this year. I’m just going to roll with the punches. If I’m really excited about putting up the tree, we’re going to do it and not wait. If I can’t handle being around our nephew, TH can go and I can stay home. I’m not going to force myself into any situation, and I’m just going to accept where I am and be there. --Kim
  • I just bought three bottles of my favorite wine yesterday to take to my mom’s….and I don’t plan to share any of it. --Guera!

How do you get through the holiday season when you're feeling less than your best? And are you more like those fictionalized pilgrims or do you bring the weather with you wherever you go?

Melissa writes Stirrup Queens and Lost and Found. Her book is Navigating the Land of If.

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