Not that long ago, I was cleaning out a drawer in our living room and came across a treasure: a “Give Thanks” banner I crafted for November decoration. Often, we hang birthday or Christmas or New Year’s banners as part of our holiday decorations. I love the homemade signs; I love the visual reminder to cultivate gratitude.
What I didn’t love so much was realizing I hadn’t hung it up last year. Thanksgiving had come and gone (it was now June) and this precious family sign had languished in its drawer.
I sighed. It didn’t really matter whether the sign went up or not. I just winced at the million sundry details that can drive me over the edge from Halloween on.
I’m fond of holidays…kinda. I love gathering around tables with family (except for the moments where family tension surfaces). I love decorations (except for the hours it takes to hang them and put them away.) I love the food (except for the stress of forgetting something on my shopping list), I love our traditions of travel (except the packing and unpacking and that time where I forgot to pack underwear and there was literally none that fit me in the shops except for grandma undies or a purple thong).
I love the holidays…I just don’t love all of the details that go into holidays. Planning, prepping, remembering, deadlines, and the minefield of a “simple” extended family dinner.
And that isn’t even taking into account the Thanksgivings where “celebrating” felt like pouring lemon juice over a recent wound. If any day amplifies mourning, it’s a warm, family-centric holiday.
Thanksgiving comes whether we’re ready or not. And I’m done feeling steamrolled. I refuse to believe that a holiday can steal my joy or peace. So in recent years I’ve focused on this: how do I make my Thanksgiving a real day of thanks? How do I look for the still center that God promises us is always available?
Set Yourself Free
One of my favorite observations about Thanksgiving comes from author Anne Lamott. She shared advice given her when she was newly sober and dreading Thanksgiving.
“Another day for Thanksgiving is Thursday,” her friend said.
In other words, holidays are, at their core, just another day.
Holidays are human creations. We make them, and we choose how big they get. We choose whether we follow every tradition to the letter regardless of how burdensome it is. We decide whether to seethe and cultivate bitterness in unhealthy family gatherings. We ask for help—or we don’t. We expect too much of ourselves and others—or we free ourselves from that trap.
People around you—especially toxic people—will say you have no choice but to do what’s expected of you, no matter how much it hurts. Heck, you will tell yourself you have no choice.
But gosh, what is God’s power in us for if we cannot say no to toxicity? What do we think James means when he says, “Resist the devil and he will flee from you?”
There is always a choice to step closer to wholeness and peace. It may not be easy but it exists.
You don’t have to go whole-hog this Thanksgiving. But if you feel dread about the holiday, pay attention. What do you dread? Why? How might Jesus help you choose a different kind of holiday that doesn’t create fear in your heart?
Cultivate Honest Nos
I will be honest: if you say no to people, you will often disappoint them.
This is not necessarily a bad thing. However, it is, at least for me, tremendously painful and frightening.
I hate disappointing people. I hate not seeming competent enough to take on every burden and obligation.
And I hate rocking the boat.
But when I’m honest and firm about my limitations, something crazy happens. I actually enjoy my holidays.
For me, being honest with others starts internally. I have to think about what burdens I need to set down, and how to do that as gracefully as possible. And then I need to communicate that lovingly to the people affected.
No that extra gathering won’t work for us. No, the party cannot be at my house. No, I’m not comfortable participating in that. No, that fun outing will not work for our family.
I find tremendous fortitude knowing that firm, generous-hearted noes are at the center of Christian practice. Sabbath-keeping is a kind of no to activity, participation, and endless activity. Fasting is an ancient practice of saying no to food for a time in order to cultivate gratitude.
God works limits into his most basic commandments. We are wise to do the same.
Intentionally Pursue “Enough”
Walk into any store about now, and the glittering decorations assail your eyes. Fall colors, turkeys in garish dress, Pilgrim memorabilia. Hand-lettered signs that say “Give Thanks” that maybe you forget to hang on the wall.
All this THANKSGIVING stuff says that Thanksgiving is overwhelming and over-the-top. That there are endless options! That you must choose, at least, between all of them!
My friend Melissa has talked about a tool she uses to cut through overwhelm. It’s called her “enough” list. She has six kids, and homeschools, and also writes. She knows from overwhelm.
She began to write down a list of what would be enough to get done for that day. She kept it short. Then when she had a spare ten minutes, or five, she looked at the list and did one thing.
What is your enough list for Thanksgiving? What, at core, is most important to you?
This year, for me, it is being present and loving at my in-laws awesome gathering, and hosting a fun feast with my extended family a few days after. I want to eat some stuffing or pie too.
That’s enough. We probably won’t get a chance to go around and ask our kids who is thankful for what this year (honestly, that tradition always falls flat with them). I am not getting out the banner this year. I decided not to do a traditional (and time-consuming) stuffing-turkey-gravy menu for our family gathering. No shopping goals or devotionals or elaborate parties.
What’s your enough this year? What might you let go of to help you cultivate real gratitude?
Gratitude is Often a Choice, Not a Magic Word
I have found that as I say NO to those things that move me to busyness, resentment, or overwhelm, it has gotten a LOT easier to be thankful for my life. It’s a double blessing, really. When I have a quiet morning on Saturdays, I know that a) I don’t have to be stressed about all the things that need to get done and b) I know I chose that blessing on purpose.
As we seek intentional gratitude, simplicity, and quiet, we have so much more energy to celebrate. It’s not your fault if holidays find you scrambling. But it is a shame if we can’t pause for a moment and intentionally seek out the kind of holiday that truly leaves us grateful.