A Choose Your Own Adventure Approach to the Holidays


Photo of Madelynn Furlong by Nicole Feest of NYLONSADDLE Photography

Originally published in December 2018

It’s the most wonderful time of the year. That’s what they say, isn’t it?

Holiday decorations have gone up and children are knocking on doors for the sole purpose of singing upbeat, aurally-pleasing carols and there is the sound of literal bells in the air—at least at the entrances to most local grocery stores, shopping malls, and Targets generally too crowded for their own good. It’s a Norman Rockwell painting come to life. It’s the holidays, folks. Welcome.

This time of year has a habit of amplifying everything, both the good and the bad—every emotion, every close bond, every fraught relationship. The holidays can be a magical time, or a strange time, or an okay time. They can be a downright hard time for folks whose anxiety, financial burdens, or relationship insecurities are magnified in tandem with the flurry of activity, festivity, and cheer from Thanksgiving to New Year’s Day. Some people find true, genuine, nearly unfathomable delight in this season of tinsel and twinkle lights. Some people do not enjoy it at all. I fall somewhere on the middle-to-latter end of the spectrum—eagerly awaiting a few particular activities and downright dreading others.

A Lack of Holiday Cheer

The holidays have, historically, been a difficult time for me. It’s some mix of being without the “perfect” set of traditions, not having the most tight-knit family with which to spend them, and living with a brain that instinctively views winter, in and of itself, as an excellent opportunity to take a dive into the depths of the Emotion Ocean, if you will!! Compounding upon all of the above, my mind also likes to regard this time of year as the ideal opportunity to compare each facet of my life to the lives of all those around me, ad nauseam. It is fun! We have the most fun.

This time of year has a habit of amplifying everything, both the good and the bad—every emotion, every close bond, every fraught relationship.

I broached this very topic with my therapist just before Thanksgiving, a day which I more often than not spend alone. I told her all of the aforementioned things and then some. I told her I generally steer clear of talking about my plans entirely in order to avoid the looks of pity people tend to give when they determine that how I’m spending this time doesn’t measure up to the unwritten, implied societal expectations for what the holidays should be. I told her I intentionally avoid posting about them on social media too, because I feel some sort of inherent shame about the whole thing. In comparison to all the shiny Instagram stories showcasing perfectly-set tables and perfectly-timed videos featuring everyone’s wittiest, most charmingly self-deprecating family members, it’s easier to keep my own plans under wraps entirely.

The Illusion of the “Perfect” Holiday Season

She did the thing that good therapists do: She listened calmly, letting me spill each one of my thoughts out into the still office air. And then, when I was done, she assured me that it was okay to feel that way. She reminded me that for as many people who are talking about or posting about a very edited version of their holiday plans, there are likely just as many not sharing at all for the same reasons as me. It’s this thing I already knew inherently. Yet it’s this thing I often forget.

We can tell ourselves, over and over again, that the narratives people relay to us in passing at the office and the ones folks post on social media are not the full story. We can recognize that water cooler chat is not particularly known for enabling vulnerability, that the curated glow of Instagram is a place where nuance goes to die. We can know that these things are true, but it’s easy to forget. So it’s good to remind ourselves, whenever we need to—whenever we’re feeling less than or not good enough or like our lives don’t measure up—that it’s okay and recommended to take every conversation about well-laid holiday plans, every shiny photo, and every witty video with a gigantic grain of salt. It’s good to remind ourselves that no two versions of the holidays need to look the same.

How to Spend the Holidays Alone—or Any Way You’d Like

So I spent Thanksgiving alone. So I was kind of dreading it. Can I tell you a secret, though? When the day finally arrived? I actually didn’t hate it. It wasn’t a perfect day (does perfect anything even exist??), but it wasn’t a bad day, either. It was just a day, one I’d decided ahead of time I would spend however the hell I wanted. And I did. I slept in. I went for a nice, long run. (My own personal version of relaxing! Not everyone’s! That’s cool!) I cooked a very good meal while meandering about my kitchen, on nobody’s timeline but my own. I caught up on my favorite podcasts. I wrote, with no pressure attached—whatever combination of words my brain wanted to spew out onto my laptop. I spent the day exactly as I pleased. While this was not the first Thanksgiving I’ve spent alone, this was probably the first year I let myself enjoy it.

Maybe you didn’t have plans for Thanksgiving or Hanukkah. Maybe you don’t have plans for Christmas (or whatever December holiday you choose to celebrate!). Maybe you don’t have plans for New Year’s Eve, either. Maybe your family isn’t idyllic, or you haven’t established any lasting traditions, or you’re single and feel weird about it, or you were just broken up with, or you just broke up with someone, or your mental health is taking a plunge, or you couldn’t get time off from work, or you just lost your job, or your husband’s family is so obnoxious they truly make you want to hide in the nearest closet, or you live halfway across the country and aren’t flying home this year, or you don’t want to talk to your Aunt Susan about her obscure political leanings (again). Maybe there are five separate reasons I did not list in that very long sentence that have had the potential to make this string of weeks your own personal version of a nightmare. I HEAR YOU AND I SEE YOU AND YOU ARE SO NOT ALONE IN THIS.

It’s okay to feel like your plans aren’t worthy of sharing, or your family isn’t everything you’d like them to be, or your end-of-year circumstances are less than ideal. It’s okay not to feel okay this time of year.

It’s okay to feel like your plans aren’t worthy of sharing, or your family isn’t everything you’d like them to be, or your end-of-year circumstances are less than ideal. It’s okay not to feel okay this time of year. We don’t have to put on a happy face. We don’t have to do every single thing that’s expected of us. We don’t have to appease all of the people all of the time. There doesn’t have to be so much undue pressure on the entire season. The holidays can be whatever it is we want them to be, whatever it is we need.

Making Holiday Plans With Intention

Take from these next few weeks the things you enjoy. Leave behind those you don’t. I understand there is a subtlety to the whole thing! I realize that the people in our lives have feelings and feelings are important and we can’t necessarily make it our mission to disregard every single one of them. I know that we can’t skip out on each activity, outing, or dinner we don’t necessarily want to attend. But we can evaluate what really matters to us and what doesn’t. We can intentionally choose to do fewer of the things that don’t bring us joy and more of those that do. December is stressful enough without us trying to meet other people’s expectations every minute of every day.

Don’t enjoy spending time with your family? Don’t spend time with your family! Or, at the very least, minimize it as best you can. Don’t feel like going to your office holiday party or your neighborhood holiday party or that mini-reunion your high school classmates are having at the bar? Don’t go! Or skip out early, if that feels right. Don’t have time to bake the perfect cookies or buy the perfect gift or host the perfect party? Pick up cookies at the store, buy an okay gift, host whatever version of a party you feel like hosting. Don’t actually enjoy going out on New Year’s Eve but yet you do it every year because you feel like that is the thing you’re supposed to be doing? Don’t go out on New Year’s Eve! I invite you to take your *shoulds,* collect your *supposed tos,* put them all together in the palms of your hands, and throw them out the nearest window.

Think of some things you genuinely enjoy doing and really up the ante on those. It can be watching holiday movies! It can be sitting by your sparkly indoor pine tree every chance you get! It can be not taking said tree down until January or February, for no other reason than you don’t want to! It can be spending time with friends! It can be spending time alone! It can be doing a crossword! It can be sitting on your couch in your underwear, watching the Chrismukkah episode of The O.C. while eating your favorite pizza with honey drizzled on top (a nonspecific example I definitely did not pull from experience)! It can have nothing to do with the stereotypical markers of the holidays at all.

Live your life. Respect your boundaries. Make your own damn traditions.

Please go easy on yourself this time of year. Please try not to compare your own plans to everyone else’s. Please remember that there don’t have to be any hard and fast rules to the upcoming few weeks—you are not only entitled but encouraged to treat this time of year as a Choose Your Own Adventure of sorts. Please remember that you can take from the holidays whatever you want.

BY Jackie Saffert - November 16, 2019

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November 17, 2019 9:10 am

This! 100x this! I LOVE spending my holidays solo or relatively solo. It’s about spending time with people you love. Yourself counts. Brava, Jackie. Happy Choose Your Own DecemberVenture, all 🙂

November 18, 2019 7:13 am

This was lovely and so nicely written. Thank you!

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