In a fairy-tale log home on 15 fragrant acres near Adamant, I used to stage Thanksgiving events fit for a TV holiday special. Fresh balsam garlands framed the fireplace, the smell of cinnamon and mulled wine scented the air, silver and crystal glistened on antique cloth tatted by my great-grandmother.
Small tubes of handmade paper tied with silk ribbon designated seating and were unrolled when I pointed to first one guest, then another, who unfurled their tiny packages and shared quotes I’d selected just for them. After the feast we read poetry or our favorite children’s books aloud while sipping brandy by the crackling fire. There were 28 of us. I was 50 years old and happy.
Ten years later, I’m 60, and it’s late Thanksgiving night. There are stacks of dishes yet to wash, bulging trash bags to take out, and ankle-deep celebration detritus in the living room. My feet are sore, and my husband is snoring in the armchair. I’m not happy now. I’m simply exhausted.
By 60 my motivation for hosting the Thanksgiving feast had slipped from an airy sense of joy into a leaden sense of obligation. The magic I’d made for 20 years had become a much-loved tradition, and the expectations of family and friends pleaded like faces of shivering children pressed against a warm bakery window. If I quit, I’d be letting down people I cared for. If I didn’t, I’d be letting myself down.
In short, I’d painted myself into a corner.
Let’s look at what it takes to make holiday magic. My 28-guest Thanksgiving extravaganza required 120 pieces of silverware; 28 plates, bowls, and saucers; and 56 glasses—at minimum. Then there’s rearranging the living room to accommodate another table, unpacking and repacking the china cabinet; days of cooking, cleaning, and preparing; and then after the meal, breaking down the entire stage set and putting the house back in order. Sure, guests pitched in, but let’s face it, when you’re the host you’ll carry the bulk of the load.
My experience isn’t unique. A dear friend called last year after Thanksgiving. She was frantic, frazzled, and knee-deep in planning and cooking for the annual round-robin Christmas tree decorating dinner tradition she shared with several other families. After that, there were dozens of cookies to be baked for the church and delivery to relatives, and presents to be bought, an eggnog brunch coming up, and finally the Christmas feast.
When I suggested she take a break, step back, and look at it from a distance, she was adamant that she couldn’t. “This is what makes Christmas,” she said. That was true, but was it making her happy?
We all have a small, quiet inner voice but often ignore it. Eventually, mine stopped whispering and screamed “Stop it!” so I did. I announced that my husband, and I would spend a long weekend in Montreal instead.
Now, we host small family gatherings or celebrate with our daughter-in-law in Maine. This year we’ll help family warm their new home by traveling to Old Orchard Beach and contributing two homemade pies. It’s simple and enjoyable.
Changing traditions can be complicated. You may be concerned about hurting others, relinquishing your status in the family, giving up activities that preserve fragile family ties, or being seen as selfish.
There’s no road map for navigating the evolution of family rituals and no one-size-fits-all solution. When I was younger, extravagant Thanksgiving ev-ents were one way I honored those who enrich my life. Now I try to honor those relationships in other ways.