Thanksgiving Dinner: Party of One

Happy holiday weekend from Japan. Technically Thanksgiving isn’t a holiday here, and you’re probably reading this after Thanksgiving is over – but who cares.

In theory, Thanksgiving is probably my favorite holiday. Even though I don’t eat turkey, I’m a pretty big fan of gratitude and giving.

This year I celebrated solo by eating a tofu feast for one in Japan’s oldest zen garden, then hunted down some soft-serve pumpkin ice cream from a market stall in Kyoto. It may sound terribly untraditional and even a bit lonely to you, but let me tell you, it was joyfully divine.

I certainly have a lot to be thankful for this year. But I also have a thanksgiving confession: the holiday season isn’t my favorite.

As a semi-nomadic, unattached adult, holidays are often really weird days for me.

For 361 days of the year, I love most things about being independent. Then the holidays sneak up and the voices whisper in that dark part of my brain that another year has passed and I still don’t actually belong anywhere.

I love the idea of Thanksgiving, but I partly dread it as another day where I don’t know where I want to go. And Thanksgiving also carries with it the burden of kicking off a whole month of wondering about what I should do for Christmas.

Truth is, holiday traditions aren’t very friendly to a lot of us. These milestone days remind us of loved ones we’ve lost, opportunities missed, years passed, and unfulfilled desires. And all this really sucks.

Avoidance vs. Reinvention

Years ago, when I realized that independent holiday adulting is actually very difficult emotional work, I coincidentally also happened to discover holiday travel. By geographically excusing myself from November and December, I learned that I could dodge my annual holiday-belonging dilemma.

Avoidance, unfortunately, is never a great long-term solution.

Lucky for me, in addition to being a master avoider, I’m also a master observer and learner. Early on in my pattern of overseas holiday avoidance (shrouded in the guise of expat living) I noticed something very interesting – different countries, cultures, and communities are re-inventing holidays for their own interest all of the time.

Japan, for example, doesn’t have anything to do with American Thanksgiving, but every single shopping mall I passed this weekend had a Black Friday sale. Go figure.

Living overseas, I quickly became part of a global community full of people like me who were away from their own families and traditions during the holidays. None of us were around the people we belonged to, so together we teamed up as a motley tribe to create unusual holiday celebrations that were based on connection, community, and mindfulness. And these were the best.

It’s been a few years now since I’ve been “home”, but my years of holiday avoidance taught me a very useful lesson: I can reinvent my holidays to make them whatever I want. To frame them with what I do have, and celebrate the small things that bring me joy is much more practical (and fun) than to try to fit into traditions that don’t align with who I am.

Having dinner alone in Japan wasn’t my number one choice for Thanksgiving. But instead of fixating on being lonely, I thought about a quote I’d heard earlier this week.

“Joy is the simplest form of gratitude.”

Instead of sulking, I sat down and made a list of all the things that would bring me the most joy that day. Walking in a beautiful place, sitting in a hot spring, eating something special, drinking matcha, talking to my family, texting my best friends around the world, and eating pumpkin ice cream because it just felt right.

And then I did all these things alone with as much joy as I could muster. And it was so much better than not eating turkey in a big group where I felt lonely.

The Lesson

No matter what your love/hate relationship status is with the holidays, I’ll leave you with this: This month doesn’t have to feel all “It’s a wonderful life”-like to confirm that you have a wonderful life.

Throw out traditions that don’t serve you well. Reinvent this season to be whatever you need it to be for you.

That’s what I’ll be doing…. Or maybe I’ll be traveling.