Every year during my childhood, the holidays were spent at my grandmother’s house. Her small two-bedroom home in South Texas was our gathering place for all major holidays and celebrations — and Thanksgiving was an especially eventful time. Being one of over 20 grandkids, my Thanksgiving holiday was spent running around outside in the crisp air with my many cousins, eating the clementines and walnuts my grandparents gave us, and generally avoiding going back inside.
As a child, perhaps I was too young to understand — or maybe I just spent too much time playing outside — but I was never privy to the family drama triggered by Thanksgiving. But I know now, without a doubt, that there was plenty of it.
Like most families, mine is made up of grandparents, uncles, aunts, brothers, sisters, and cousins who all have their own personalities and opinions. Unfortunately, those various positions clash, even under the best of circumstances. Put that together with the added stress that naturally occurs during Thanksgiving and the rest of the holiday season, and those components hold the potential for danger. Now that I’m an adult who has seen first hand the kind of drama that can spring up around the holidays, I wish I could return to the carefree days of running around in my grandma’s yard, a place where the stress couldn’t touch me.
My feelings about the holidays aren’t uncommon.
Though there isn’t much hard data on the topic, most experts report that the majority of people feel some degree of anxiety about the holidays because of family conflict. And it’s only been made worse this current year thanks to the fallout from the 2016 presidential election: 39% of Americans admitted to fighting with a loved one over politics, while 13% confessed to straight up ending a relationship because of the election. (And I’m within those statistics, too. The current political atmosphere has created a lot of drama in my personal life — and Thanksgiving will be no different.)
My family is large and outspoken about our beliefs. The line is clearly drawn between progressives like myself and rabid Trump supporters — there’s no avoiding arguments. Even when the peacekeepers of my family try to minimize the melee, there is a tangible undercurrent of tension always ready to rear its ugly head.
In other words, Thanksgiving has become toxic for a lot of us, if it wasn’t already. And removing yourself from a toxic environment is self-care — even if that environment involves the holidays.
Recently I’ve taken that advice to heart and reclaimed the holiday season for what it should really be about: making memories with the people I love the most (while on a fun vacation, actually).
In 2015, my husband and I ditched the usual shuttle between various family gatherings and passed on the road trip back to my home town. Instead, we turned Thanksgiving into a vacation for the two of us and our children. We loved the trip so much that we took another during the 2016 holiday season, and we plan to do so again this year. We’ll usually head to Walt Disney World and spend the week having fun in Florida.
There is no arguing with a racist uncle about President Obama. No sidestepping sensitive conversations. No pretending we didn’t hear this aunt or that cousin drop a bigoted term.
In short, the decision resulted in the best Thanksgiving ever.
If you’re feeling the same amount of apprehension and stress when it comes to the holidays, it’s not something to take lightly. High levels of stress, even over a small period of time, can take terrible tolls on your mind and body. Not only that, but the holidays — New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day especially — see increased instances of domestic violence. Those two situations, mixed with the increased strain of the current political climate, can make for an unhealthy environment for anyone.
You may think that all this holiday tension is just something you “have” to put up with because “family is family” — but it’s important to know that it’s not necessary.
While family is important, your mental and physical health is even more important. I really do miss the holidays of my youth that were filled with family and traditions — but that was a time before I understood that family tension can be toxic. I know that’s a time of my life I can’t recreate.
So, instead, I’m beginning my own traditions with the family that I’ve built.
Whether you decide to throw a Friendsgiving, make the holidays a private affair, or hit the road and make new memories, you can take the steps to reclaim the holiday for yourself. There isn’t much you can do to change the opinions of others, but you can choose which of those people you let in for special moments.
It can be a mere act of self-care of the beginning of a new tradition. Whatever you choose to call it, you can ditch the potential toxicity of Thanksgiving and gain an experience that you can truly be thankful for.