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This week is one of my favorite of the whole year. I adore everything about Thanksgiving. Always have. And here’s the thing: I spend pretty much every Thanksgiving alone.

Don’t get me wrong: I had a wonderful time with my immediate family growing up (as a military family, we were always far from grandparents and other relatives, but we made the time festive with just us five). And I’ve spent a number of really lovely days with friends and their families. All good. But I want to commend to you the fabulousness of Thanksgiving alone, especially those of you who are dreading a different kind of holiday this year than you are used to.

After all, different doesn’t have to equal worse. I came across an excellent visual metaphor for this idea this morning on social media. An accomplished bagpiper was told that she couldn’t play jazz. Her response has been giving me joy all day.

Thanksgiving this year, then, might be like jazz bagpipe: not what you were hoping for, but totally cool in its own right. Embrace it, and you might even have a good time.

If this is your first time doing a solo Thanksgiving, I have only a few tips:

  1. Make it a day of no “shoulds”

You have my permission to do exactly what you want. All day. Release yourself from expectations. Consider what would please yourself and go for it. Early hike? Go. Sleep in til noon. Yes. Watch the entire Lord of the Rings cycle of films. Bless. Read that book you’ve been wanting to start. Most definitely. If you’re with immediate family, discuss what y’all would most like to do together and separately. But no obligations, no rules. Just be and relax.

2. Relatedly, eat whatever you want.

I love to cook, so I usually do the traditional Thanksgiving meal for myself. But if you hate to cook, don’t do it. Or cook the parts you like—and buy the rest. Order in from a local restaurant (and feel virtuous about helping the economy). Even Ina Garten, the Barefoot Contessa herself, says “store bought is fine.” To be honest, I have to practice my spiritual discipline against gluttony every time I go in the Trader Joe’s and see all the enticing pre-packaged food. Thanksgiving is the day to rejoice in bounty, so why not?

And maybe this is the year to not do turkey (or whatever your traditional main is). Maybe you really just like the sides. Maybe it’s time for a pie-themed year (every food in the form of some kind of pie). I gave a baby shower last year where every dish served was potato-based, and it was by far the best shower I have ever thrown. Maybe you want to do a “reverse” dinner–and start with dessert (never a bad idea!). Or maybe you’d rather have pasta or potstickers or curry or tacos. Do it. Occasionally when I was growing up and we had the “treat” of fast food, my parents would allow us to go through different drive-throughs to assemble our meals. Mostly, this meant a burger from one place and fries at another, but sometimes somebody also wanted chicken or a burrito or a specific milkshake . So we’d make a circuit around town picking up everybody’s stuff. A small pleasure, but one that I still cherish 40 years on. Different gives you the permission to do different–and make memories doing it.

3. Have a beautiful space, if you want to

It may be beyond your bandwidth (and if so, no “shoulds”), but know that you are worthy of nice things, of decorations. Mark the day: get out candles and a tablecloth. Maybe use a fancier dish for your take-out. Play great music. Loudly. I bought flowers for myself tonight, and the house already feels more festive. Do something to mark the day visually. Be silly and “dress” for dinner if you’re with your small pod—or you want to show your family and friends on Zoom that you are wearing more than that one sweatshirt all the time. Get fancy if that feels fun. Or do a pajama day. Remember this is a feast day–merriment is welcome.

4. Think beyond yourself

Consider donating the money you might have spent on a bigger dinner to a charity you support. Spend some time during the day writing notes to all the people you’re missing to give them a tangible reminder of your love. Connect in other ways that feel meaningful. Pray.

For me, Thanksgiving is the much-needed pause in the semester where I can catch my breath, recharge, and emerge ready for December. My hope for each of you is that you’ll be able to embrace a (probably) different experience this year and in it find the gift of celebration and of refreshment–and the gratitude that this holiday is here to remind us of.

This week, I sent my students home with this wonderful song of encouragement by Sandra McCracken. I’ve been uplifted this semester by the chorus’s affirmation:

I know you’re with me

You are for me

You’ve been behind me

You go before

You walk beside me through darkest valleys

I know you are with me.

Simple words, but a powerful reminder that we never really go alone. Happy Thanksgiving.

Jennifer L. Holberg

I’ve taught English at Calvin College since 1998–where I get to read books and talk about them for a living. What could be better? Along with my wonderful colleague, Jane Zwart, I am the co-director of the Calvin Center for Faith and Writing, which is the home of the Festival of Faith and Writing as well as a number of other exciting endeavors. Given my interest in teaching, I’m the founding co-editor of the Duke University Press journal Pedagogy: Critical Approaches to Teaching Literature, Language, Composition and Culture (and yes, I realize that that is a very long subtitle). As an Army brat, I’ve never lived anywhere as long as I’ve now lived in Grand Rapids, a city I've come to love. I count myself rich in friends and family. I collect cookbooks (and also like to cook), listen to all kinds of music, and watch all manner of movies and tv shows. I love George Eliot, Jane Austen, Marilynne Robinson, Dante, E.M. Delafield, Tennyson, Hopkins, and Charlotte Bronte (among others). And I used to have a bumper sticker on my car that said: “I’d rather be reading Flannery O’Connor.” I don't have the car anymore, but the sentiment is still true.

9 Comments

  • Sue Poll says:

    What a refreshing approach to Thanksgiving Day, Jennifer! Thank you for this! I am thankful for all the gifts you share with us in this column, on Facebook, through the Festival of Faith and Writing, and through your friendship.

  • Jon Lunderberg says:

    Thank you for helping me set the table of expectations for a Thanksgiving that will be different from all the others.

    BTW — I love cooking as well; tomorrow I will be grilling a beef tenderloin instead of turkey — new traditions are good.

  • Daniel J Meeter says:

    So many gifts in this post. Strange to say, especially the fast-food drive-through tour. Whopper from Burger King, fries from McDonalds. I guess it’s because we’ve just moved to Poughkeepsie from Brooklyn — that is, to America from New York City — and we’ve had to face participating in the car-based culture, driving everywhere, driving even to buy a carton of milk. We have always loathed the great parking lots of plazas and malls that we have now to frequent. Yesterday Melody said that if she just gets over that hatred and negativity, grocery-shopping is not so bad! And that’s why I can imagine the fast-food tour as an act of charity and reconciliation, even a joyful acedia, joyfully bearing one’s cross, giving thanks in all things, Hey, if the Egyptians give you their jewelry, wear it! Thank you very much. And also for the bagpipe.

  • Nancy VandenBerg says:

    I love it, Jennifer! What timely suggestions.
    The bagpipe clip is bringing a smile and arousing an appreciation and enjoyment of the simple things in life… no matter how crazy.
    I hope this Thanksgiving break allows you the refueling you need.

  • Jim Dekker says:

    Whoa! Thanks, Jennifer. I think I’ll take a week off, bc that’s how long (at least) your instructions will take to celebrate properly; I never like doing things partially. And yes, I’ll need the hike, more than one. Blessings jcd

  • Emily Ruth Brink says:

    Thanks to Jennifer for this gift of a post, and also to your response, Daniel. So you’re in Poughkeepsie! I’d love to share my memories of Poughkeepsie; please send me your new email address!

  • Marla says:

    So many wonder-filled, grace-fulled suggestions here, Jennifer! Thank you for the overall joyful time of this post and also for the detailed suggestions. Yay!!!

  • Amy Schenkel says:

    That whole Sandra McCracken album, Patient Kingdom is something I’ve been grateful for these past few weeks!

  • Elaine DeStigter says:

    Faithfully following CDC guidelines, I will be spending the first Thanksgiving in my life alone in my home. But with my daughter who lives in Minneapolis, after purchasing the same menu items from Trader Joe’s, we will eat our meal together via zoom. I think we will “upgrade” and use your ideas with fine china, table linens, flowers and background music. The jazz bagpipe selection, of course! 🎶🎶 Thanks, Jennifer!

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