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How to be alone on Thanksgiving

Social expectations surrounding Thanksgiving are so high that sometimes we forget about those of us who are alone on this High Holy of Food Holidays.


S.E. Smith

Internet Culture

Growing up as a child, and well into my teens, Thanksgiving meant only one thing: food, and lots of it. Whether we were in Greece or the United States, a motley crew of people (some of whom were even related to us) would descend upon the house for huge volumes of food, love, and laughter; it was a fall feast to me, and a chance to cook a huge meal that was only possible because it was a four-day weekend. As people sit down at their own tables today—or choose to fast in recognition of the darker associations with the holiday—I think of those who are alone on Thanksgiving.

Thanksgiving first started to change for me when I was 16, at college across the country and unable to go home. It was financially ridiculous to fly back for four days, especially considering not just the length of the flight, but the long drive home. I had planned to stay on campus with the other pathetic remainders, those sad sacks satirized in comedy skits about people who eat at Denny’s for Thanksgiving. Instead, at the last minute, a family friend swept me up into her home. Eleanor was the Angel of Friendsgiving that year, and she introduced me to sweet potato pie, fire ants, and alligators, none of which I particularly enjoyed, if I may be honest.

Thanksgiving is a holiday that comes with some loaded cultural baggage; it’s not just a fall feast, no matter how my family celebrated it. In the U.S., it’s bound up a myth about pilgrims and indigenous people sitting down to break bread together, which may well be an amalgamation of events that really happened, but it’s not the whole story. For even as indigenous people broke bread with Europeans, Europeans colonized their land, changed their lives forever with infectious diseases, raped and assaulted men and women alike, and forever reshaped America. These charged cultural and racial elements loom over the holiday like a fug.

For some, Thanksgiving has been turned into a day of mourning or fasting, and I can see why; there’s something deeply troubling about celebrating the suppression of entire cultures and vast numbers of tribes and communities with a massive meal where everyone gets bloated with turkey and slips into a tryptophan coma. I’m writing this very piece from colonized Pomo land, in a house in the woods next to a river that indigenous people no doubt fished from and lived near before the Russians descended for furs, Europeans for timber and fish, and, ultimately, Americans for gold.

Native American Dennis Zotigh articulates the strange push-pull some Native families experience as they struggle to decide whether, and how, to observe Thanksgiving: “No, I don’t celebrate, but I do take advantage of the holiday and get together with family and friends to share a large meal without once thinking of the Thanksgiving in 1621. I think it’s the same in many native households.” His comments speak to what the holiday always was to me, and the crucial component of our Thanksgivings today; a nod of respect to its origins, but a desire to take advantage of one of the few bank holidays a year to see loved ones. Maybe if this country actually respected vacation time, we wouldn’t have to cram in our time together. 

Acknowledging these darker complexities of the holiday, though, Thanksgiving has also become a much-hyped social event. Along with Christmas, it’s one of the few times a year when families are expected to gather—and judging from the number of “survival guides to dealing with your families on Thanksgiving” published around this time of year, not everyone’s happy with that state of affairs. Regardless as to how people feel about it, there’s considerable pressure to be around others at Thanksgiving. Some people dodge the family thing by gathering together for Friendsgiving, or some blend of the two; I’m fortunate in that my father is also my friend, and I love having him at my table. But for those who don’t have those options, being alone on Thanksgiving is almost an uncomfortable social taboo, whether by choice or circumstance.

The holiday can feel acutely isolating when no one is there to observe it with you, turning it into a sort of one hand clapping situation. Sitting in my room all those years ago as I heard the other members of my house peel off one by one for their flights home, I was filled with an overwhelming sense of isolation, even though I could open up my clunky Sony laptop and connect instantly with my friends in the Internet. I could chat with my old friends at home, hop on the BBS a group of us shared (and still share, yes, BBSs still exist). Social networking didn’t really inhabit the Web, but it’s not like there wasn’t an Internet, or that people didn’t make friends on it.

Most of the time, I am a fierce advocate for my friends in the Internet. I firmly believe that you don’t need to meet people do be close to them, and that your level of connection and friendship isn’t judged by physical proximity. You can be more intimate with someone in another country whom you’ve never actually seen than you can with someone who sits across the table from you in the morning, sometimes. The bonds and supportive networks that people form across the Internet can become a key part of our lives.

Thanksgiving, though, is one of the few times when friends in the Internet don’t seem like enough. The holiday is explicitly not just about celebrating friendship (something that can easily be done in a group chat, or, these days, a Google Hangout), but doing so over a table. There’s something powerful about breaking bread with people, a reason the very turn of phrase “breaking bread” is so popular. There’s a reason that, historically, feeding people was a critical component of political and social negotiations, that entertaining someone as a guest created certain obligations.

This is a holiday loaded with cultural meanings, and with tables groaning with food, but it’s also about more than that. It’s a holiday where people connect over food and celebrate relationships that may be new or old, but are made stronger by eating together. And that’s something that’s impossible over the Internet, no matter how connected we are. Eating on either end of a GChat isn’t the same. Skyping the dinner table will never quite equate to sitting down at it, to passing the gravy, to narrowly avoiding the overcooked green beans (seriously, try green beans that haven’t been cooked to mush sometime, you might like them).

The Internet fosters, and creates, an amazing sense of connection. It creates opportunities for meeting people from diverse cultures and walks of life, like the self-same indigenous people whom I met and interacted with when I was learning about the darker side of Thanksgiving. But one thing it can’t always do is relieve the intense feeling of loneliness some people experience when they face down holidays traditionally marked by fellowship alone, even as I see people on social networks spreading friendly reminders today to be kind to people who may be feeling lonesome.

Maybe they couldn’t make it to family Thanksgiving. Maybe they’re estranged. Maybe they’re feeling raw wounds from intense arguments over important ideologies or their own identities—like trans women told they don’t belong to the family anymore or children not welcomed back to the family home after standing up to a parent’s racism. Maybe they’re living alone in new cities and no one has befriended them yet, or they’re too shy to make friends. Maybe they’re lonely college students left behind in echoing dorms.

Whoever they are, they’re alone on a day when many people are celebrating togetherness, and the Internet can’t quite bridge that gap. Thanksgiving is somewhat unique among holidays in that it really is focused on food and the mutual enjoyment of same, but it wasn’t until my teens that I learned that food alone isn’t what Thanksgiving is about: It’s having someone to share it with.

Luckily, that someone may be right around the corner; try poking a local friend in the Internet to see what she’s up to, because chances are that there’s an extra place at the table for you. And if you’re perfectly happy being alone on Thanksgiving with Netflix and a glass of eggnog, I raise my flour-stained rolling pin to you. 

Photo via Satya Murthy/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

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