Thanksgiving: Happy Holiday or a Turkey?

Group of people arm in arm

Even with a turkey that you know will

fold

 You may be stranded out in the cold,

Still you wouldn’t change it for a

sack of gold…

                                             -Irving Berlin

No one has captured America in words and music like Irving Berlin.  His classics, such as “God Bless America” and  “White Christmas,” express exactly who we are and what is in our hearts. But what’s amazing is that when he was composing the lyrics above…about what it’s like being in show business…he unknowingly came up with an apt description of America in the throes of its annual pre-Thanksgiving emotional enigma!

The slang word for a show destined to fail–turkey–fits perfectly into the mood.We are saddled with this dud, the future looks bleak, we aren’t feeling well, but it’s Thanksgiving time, and we’re going to hang onto the tradition.

Thanksgiving! The most ambivalent time of the year. The most emotionally-charged holiday, the overture to the ultra emotionally-charged holiday season on the calendar. A cornucopia of warmth, gratitude, nostalgia, anxiety, happy anticipation, dread and depression.

But does the sad side really have to remain? With all that has been learned about human behavior and ways to ameliorate symptoms of emotional suffering, perhaps it’s time we say, “We would like to change it.  Let ‘s take a look at Thanksgivings past and see what was wonderful and what needs to be improved.“

Hurrah for pumpkin pie

For some folks, the advent of Thanksgiving means updated visions of the old poem that goes “Over the river and through the woods to Grandfather’s  house we go!…Hurrah for the fun, hurrah for the pumpkin pie!”

One person. for whom such an idyllic holiday was real, has recalled the scene in an oral memoir. She is Carole-Lee Porter, whose family name harkens back to colonial days. The Thanksgiving setting is a huge log house in a field in rural Massachusetts.

“When you walked into the dining room, it was like stepping into a garden full of roses. Grandma had set the huge table with her collection of ruby red cranberry glass.She had enough for all of us, no odds and ends.

“We were happy to see each other, to be together, to celebrate our country. Every kid had a  job. Mine was to write all the names on fancy little place cards. Grandma said she gave me that job because l had the nicest handwriting of all her grandchildren. That made me proud.

“But Grandpa had the most special job of all. He did something to the TV set that made it shut off when we were ready to begin our family Thanksgiving.”

Inner turmoil

For other people, the coming of Thanksgiving means experiencing, then facing up to, inner turmoil, and finally getting a grip on it by seeking help from a mental health specialist.

To still others, the holiday says amen to the facetious remark of a seasonally-overworked psychiatrist, who summed it up by saying,  “The trouble with Thanksgiving is that you have to spend it with your family.”

Instant Citizens

But then there’s this: Thanksgiving always has, and still does, give newcomer families to this nation of immigrants an easy way, a delicious way, to feel like integrated Americans. They simply host, or are guests at, a Thanksgiving dinner. Granted the appetizer might be Sugar Cane Shrimp or dim sum.  But with a turkey on the table for the main course, you belong.  You might as well sing “God bless America, my home sweet home,” which some grateful families actually do.

On still another hand, a US NEWS article in 2014 reported: “Thanksgiving brings some families together that would rather be apart.

The Myth

“‘There is a picture-postcard myth that we all see everywhere we look – that everyone is going to be sitting down at the dining room table with the traditional family dinner,’ says Dr. John Oldham, chief of staff and senior vice president of The Menninger Clinic in Houston. ‘That’s not going to be the case for many families.’ The reality of Thanksgiving for some Americans is rife with family tension, fights, arguments, sorrow and loss.”

Cut the turkey

The antics at a multi-generational Thanksgiving dinner became classic in the 1990 film “Avalon,” written and directed by Barry Levinson. It has been dubbed one of the five best portrayals in its genre. One of the clips, now on YouTube, is entitled “You cut the turkey without me?” Although hilarious, the question actually isn’t funny.  The chronic lateness of the brother who asks it lights the fuse for all sorts of pent-up resentments to explode—vestiges, perhaps, of decades-old sibling rivalry simmering since childhood.

Analysis

What do the pros have to say? One analysis comes from Claudia Kohner, PhD, a psychologist with a longtime interest in educating parents in the relationship between their children’s behavior and their children’s feelings. She is the developer of the free app, “IntroDUCKtion to Very, Very Big Feelings.”

Dr. Kohner sets the scene: “The annual feast brings together extended family made up of people in different stages of development. Understanding this can help us in tolerating multi-generational gatherings. However, in the final analysis, allowances have to be made.

Focus on past

“Intense focus on the past (and much arguing) is acted out in  ‘Avalon.’ Reminiscing is what older people do, and younger generations don’t understand. Perhaps a pre-dinner discussion could be set up, when plans might be hatched for the comfort of the younger set for the duration of the meal.

Kid ease

For example, a decision can be made to smile when the nostalgia of cohort groups (people who went through similar historical periods) gets tiresome.  Little ones could be permitted to bring along a comforting, non-disruptive toy, and for older children/adolescents, cell phone usage might come under consideration.”

Causes of anxiety

The need to plan for a reasonable comfort level raises a question: What is it about the prospect of going to a family celebratory dinner that causes emotional distress? Therapists have reported a multiplicity of triggers.

Travel

If a long distance trip is involved, thoughts of flying could be less than pleasurable…expensive holiday fares, inability to choose your seat, being saddled with carry-ons because of high shipped baggage charges, flight delays and cancellations,  endless lines through security checks, and, most threatening of all, exposure to seasonal germs from colds, the flu, etc., as well as the dreaded covid.

Intrusion

Then too, once you are at the table, there is the uncomfortable prospect of being asked uncomfortable personal questions by well-meaning/simply curious relatives, or arch rivals from your childhood.

Finally, there is, the most hurtful anxiety-inducing possibility–dealing with an empty chair, due to the loss of someone beloved, or a divorce, or illness.

Anticipating Anxiety

Anxiety can stem from the anticipation of feeling coerced into taking a drink (of alcohol), eating something against your principles (vegan or religious), or tasting something fattening (refusing her corn pudding made with condensed milk will hurt Auntie Reekah’s feelings, or give you a lactose intolerance attack).

The Wampanoag

Another reason for a compassionate person to become anxious might be historical–recalling the varied tales of the first Thanksgiving, celebrated with members of the indigenous Wampanoag tribe. Native Americans had helped the colonists survive, and were repaid by betrayal.

Depression Symptoms

Signs of anxiety should never be ignored, as they may lead to depression.  The symptoms of depression are insomnia, fatigue, sadness, appetite disturbances, poor concentration, feelings of excessive guilt and thoughts of suicide. If any of these signs appear, help should be sought from an experienced mental health expert.

Depression self-help diet

What self-help measures might work against the Thanksgiving blues?  First, eat foods touted as depression antidotes, such as probiotics, beans, nuts, seeds and wild-caught fish high in omega-3 fats. Stay away from added sugar, alcohol, refined grains and caffeine.

Parade aid

Watch Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parades of past years streaming on TV.  Be cheered by the colorful floats, huge balloon figures,  performers, music and the spirited crowds on the sidewalks of New York.

Hug phobia

If you come from an outwardly affectionate, demonstrative family, and you suspect the reason you might be anxious about going to the Thanksgiving dinner is because you don’t feel like being hugged against your will, check out the Google list of phobias with strange-sounding names, like Haphephobia.

Sack of gold

Finally, read the history of Thanksgiving; be amazed at how many false starts it had, why Thomas Jefferson took the Fourth Amendment and refused to endorse Thanksgiving as a federal holiday.

As a finale, be sure to take special note of how President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (in Irving Berlin’s words) changed Thanksgiving’s date for a sack of gold to boost the U.S. economy.

Sylvia Brafman Mental Health Center in Fort Lauderdale, Florida

The Sylvia Brafman Mental Health Center, located in the serene city of Tamarac and serving the broader Broward County and South Florida regions, is a beacon of hope for individuals struggling with mental health disorders. As the premier mental health and dual-diagnosis treatment center in Fort Lauderdale, we offer a comprehensive suite of services that include a Mental Health Intensive Outpatient Program (IOP), a Mental Health Partial Hospitalization Program (PHP), counseling, therapy, and psychiatric care. Our team of highly skilled professionals is committed to providing personalized, evidence-based treatment designed to address each patient’s unique needs.

We specialize in treating a wide array of conditions such as depression, anxiety disorders (including generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, social anxiety disorder), bipolar disorder, PTSD, OCD, schizophrenia, ADHD, and borderline personality disorder. Furthermore, we offer assistance to individuals experiencing a mental breakdown and provide an immersive mental health retreat environment designed to foster recovery. At the Sylvia Brafman Mental Health Center, we are passionate about empowering our patients to take control of their mental health journey, equipping them with the necessary tools to navigate their path towards wellness with confidence and resilience. Our goal is to help each individual build a healthier, happier life.

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