Melancholic Thanksgiving

When I think “Thanksgiving”, I also think “melancholy”.

When I was 8, my dad died about ten days before Thanksgiving. And for the following 12 years, other family losses bunched up in November and December, culminating with my mom in December, 2007.

For most of my childhood, Thanksgiving felt like a tremendous effort to ignore loss while meeting idealized (commercialized) celebration standards.

My mother succeeded in creating a Norman Rockwell fest, even for our family of 2. Frenzied joy trumped her sadness (usually). But the pall of loss lingered.

Now, this year, there are some health concerns in our family. And of course, it’s all timed around Thanksgiving. Do I bring this on, myself?

I suppose Thanksgiving is a holiday of dualities: we celebrate our bounty at the same time nature turns cold and brown around us. Under dreary November skies, we fill our dining rooms with a feast.

It’s also the first time of the year we’re expected to sit down as a family. For ten months there’s been summer BBQ’s and a few Hallmark holidays. Oh, and Easter.

But November brings the realization of what’s missing. There’s unfilled dinner seats, exhausted nerves, exasperation at the effort made for a holiday where things don’t always go according to a TV script, and the anticipation of another five weeks of holiday insanity.

And then there’s that nasty visitor from the bitter North: social obligation.

We’ve all gotta be happy, happy, happy. We think we have to serve this, clean that, play this, and enjoy that. I always worry I’m not going to have a Pottery Barn catalog Thanksgiving ideal. The anticipation is nerve-racking.

One of my cherished moments shared with my mother was at Thanksgiving a year before her death. I was lamenting all the plans I’d made during a quick trip home to Colorado. I was already tired and annoyed, and I’d just arrived. During the conversation, I stopped, sighed, and looked at Mom as I said, “Man, the older I get, the more holidays feel like a pain in the ass. I feel sad.”

Mom’s face lost her normal Midwestern attentiveness. She looked uncharacteristically uncensored. She nodded and said, wisely, “I’m glad you understand me a little bit more.”

We shared a silent moment. It felt…honest.

And it was a gift.

Yet despite my complaints, my melancholy and my annoyance with social obligations, Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. It’s the beginning of a magical season, it ushers in excitement and cheer. And it’s enriching to stop, reflect, and give thanks.

I’m not depressed. I always enjoy the holiday. But the melancholy goes hand-in-hand with my adoration of buttery mashed potatoes.

I wish you all a good Thanksgiving, devoid of obligatory festivity (which is impossible). But if a slight taste of sadness accompanies your Thanksgiving, don’t worry. You’re not alone.

Embrace it, I guess. Give it thanks. Have a drink.

And smile. Life’s still beautiful.


  1. Thanks Gavin. Your thoughts on Thanksgiving and the Christmas season have been my thoughts over the years. My mother-in-law, Frances, endured much loss during the month of December so she held her breath the whole month that “the other shoe would fall.” The Christmas season was always tinged with sadness as she lost her mother, father, son, and husband all in the month of December. Thank you for sharing and may your Thanksgiving be blessed with the things that really matter.


  2. It’s nice to read that people feel the way I do during holiday seasons. My partner comes from a “picturesque” family and it’s a fun celebration for his side… And not so much on mine. It breaks my heart to know and feel he can’t relate to me regarding this topic but I’m learning to cope with it myself. Thanks for sharing!


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