How to Have a Happy (Less-Stressful) Thanksgiving

Like many, Thanksgiving Day is one of my favorite holidays on the calendar. Also like many, it has also been one of the busiest, most stressful, and most tiring days of the year for my wife and me. This was true the first year that I decided to prepare a smoked turkey on my back patio — in the rain and wind. As hard as I tried, I could not find a way to keep the charcoal going. By the appointed dinner hour, with family and friends gathered, ready to dig in, the turkey hadn’t even broken a sweat. He was so cold I think he asked me to lend him a sweater. That was one not-so-fun, but oh-so-stressful Thanksgiving Day.

Yes, Thanksgiving is a treasured holiday for many. Yet, because of our tendencies to romanticize (the occasionally great) Thanksgiving Days of the past, we can set the bar of expectations so high for the day that we’re bound to experience a letdown when the reality (inevitably) doesn’t meet the expectations.

It seems that on Thanksgiving if something can go wrong, it likely will, throwing a wrench into our plans and expectations that increase our stress. Aunt Selma is sick and can’t come for dinner. But we always count on her cream of bean, broccoli, bacon, and olive surprise casserole on Thanksgiving. We mostly count on it because of the humor potential — not because anyone enjoys eating it. (No one is sure what the “surprise” ingredient is — and nobody wants to know.) But it’s just not Thanksgiving without it. It’s a family tradition, and somehow despite its ghastly taste, we fret that somehow this Thanksgiving has been diminished.

Over the years, I’ve learned some lessons (mostly the hard way) on how families can reduce the stress level of Thanksgiving, which leads to a happier holiday. Here they are:

1. Manage Your Traditions. There is something wonderful about creating and repeating family traditions. These serve to connect families together and create legacies that can endure for generations. But traditions, if not managed, can also take on their own lives, and families can end up serving traditions rather than the traditions serving the family. At Thanksgiving, this happens when we demand that everything about our holiday must be exactly the same as it was last year, the year before, and the year before.

Traditions are best managed when we don’t make the location of the Thanksgiving celebration or the menu items for the meal the heart of our traditions. Rather, focus on traditions of the heart: the relationships you get to renew each Thanksgiving, the conversations, the laughter, and the love.

2. Give Up the Fantasy of a Perfect Thanksgiving. The bad news: the perfect Thanksgiving Day doesn’t exist. The good news: perfection isn’t required to experience a truly happy Thanksgiving. When something goes wrong, your attitude toward and response to the situation will go a long way to determining your stress level.

3. Evaluate Your Expectations. Here are three important questions: 1) What are you planning? 2) Why are you planning it? 3) Is it reasonable to expect that you can accomplish the plan?

Expectations are fine. Identifying them before the holiday can help you evaluate and adjust them to become a better fit with reality. This gives you more control over your behavior and stress level on Thanksgiving Day.

4. Create Some Margin. The person or persons hosting Thanksgiving dinner are often the most stressed on Thanksgiving Day. It’s no “holiday” for them. Sure, for most, it’s a labor of love. But it’s a lot of labor nonetheless.

If most of the Thanksgiving Day preparations fall on you, here’s a reminder: you don’t have to do everything yourself. Sure, you probably can handle the details and tasks better than anyone else, but it’s simply not necessary. Ask for help. Give others specific tasks. Many hands make light work. Give yourself some margin, and your Thanksgiving will be happier and less stressful.

If most of the preparation falls on others, don’t sit by and let them do all the work. Offer to lend a helping hand. Find ways to help and get to work. You will still have time to relax and enjoy the holiday, plus you’ll be helping to make Thanksgiving a bit happier and less stressful for others.

5. Don’t Take the Bait. Almost everyone has at least one family member who offers the special Thanksgiving gift of instigating family conflict. To them, Thanksgiving is often their pot-stirring, button-pushing high holy holiday. Maybe your sister will make the sniping comment implying that your turkey is a tad dry, “This turkey is just delicious [cough, cough]! Could you pass me the gravy and some more wine? [cough]” Or maybe it’s your mother-in-law’s back-handed compliment about your gravy, “This has really good flavor! It took me years of practice to make my gravy smooth. Be patient. You’ll get there.”

Simply expect that some snarky comments will fly on Thanksgiving Day. When it happens, do your best to ignore or make light of it. Shake it off and let it go. These comments are almost always a fishing expedition. Remember, the fish that gets hooked is the fish that takes the bait. Don’t take the bait!

6. Give Thanks. With all of the preparations involved in Thanksgiving Day (meals, family, travel, and so on), it’s pretty easy to forget that the holiday was created as a day Americans give thanks to God for their blessings. As Christ-followers, we know that even in the midst of difficult seasons of life, that God is good and that there is always something to thank Him for. So, take at least a few moments and offer up a prayer of thanks to God. The attitude of gratitude is the foundation upon which a happy and less stressful Thanksgiving is built.

7. Find Ways to Give. Whether it’s the gift of a pumpkin pie to a neighbor, inviting another family to your Thanksgiving Dinner, raking leaves for the elderly couple down the street, or making a contribution to a local shelter, do something for someone else — something that your family feels good about doing. Lower any potential stresses by recognizing that this doesn’t have to be done on Thanksgiving Day itself. The simple act of giving during the Thanksgiving season is likely to increase the joy and happiness of your family’s Thanksgiving Day celebration.

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Jim Liebelt

Jim is Senior Writer, Editor and Researcher for HomeWord. Jim has 40 years of experience as a youth and family ministry specialist, having served over the years as a pastor, author, editor, consultant, mentor, trainer, college instructor, and speaker. Jim’s HomeWord Culture Blog also appears on Jim and his wife Jenny live in Quincy, MA.

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