The last time I hosted a traditional Thanksgiving dinner, I almost lost my oldest son’s respect. After two glasses of wine, my tongue unleashed itself in front of my two adult sons, my new daughter-in-law, my husband, his relatives and their young children. The next day, my eldest son and his wife rose before dawn and left the house unannounced. When I reached him over the phone, he swore never to sit with me at a table again.
I was devastated. But I already knew that the holidays are not always cheerful, especially when on the verge of divorce.
According to Fernando Burgos, who served as a police officer in Santa Ana before becoming a licensed marriage and family therapist, “Thanksgiving is by far the busiest day of the year for law enforcement. People who barely tolerate each other sit around a table and start drinking. By 10 p.m., they want to kill each other. That’s when domestic violence calls start pouring in.”
Managing children’s expectations
After her daughter was born, Alice used to go all out for the holidays. She would decorate her house in Palos Verdes, cook lovely Chinese meals and lavish everyone with gifts. However, behind the glittery façade, Alice hid the burden of an emotionally abusive relationship.
“He is so charming [that] nobody would believe he had this other personality when it was just the two of us,” she says. When Alice filed for divorce, she and her now-ex-husband were cordial with each other, but their daughter didn’t take the separation well. Because her parents had kept the abuse hidden from her, she blamed Alice for the failed marriage.
Sofia Mendoza, a licensed clinical social worker with 15 years of experience, says that in these cases, validation is key in the parent-child relationship because:
1. We are helping children learn to identify their emotions.
2. Being validated helps them feel connected and listened to and
3. It fosters a healthy response to communication between
To help manage our children’s expectations of the holiday season, Burgos suggests pre-planning. There is some certainty in telling the child, “I understand you are upset because Mommy/Daddy is not going to be here for Christmas, but we are going to do ABC, and we are going to have a good time,” he says. In addition, communicate with the other side of the family about their plans to spend time with the child.
Such clear-laid plans are reassuring for the child and can pave the way for creating new family traditions — watching Christmas movies together or skating at the rinks in Santa Monica or Pershing Square, for instance.
Mendoza also has a workbook with a curated list of family-friendly activities for those on a low budget. These activities are meant to promote connection while celebrating the holidays. Whether creating a happy memory/gratitude jar or watching the Christmas tree lighting at the Music Center or menorah lighting at the Culver Steps, allow your child to participate in the decision making.
Both Burgos and Mendoza stress the importance of being ready to soothe the children if they are upset about the reality of the holidays. Alice, for instance, understands that she can’t tie her emotions to her daughter’s outbursts, so she gives her permission and space to express herself.
Radical acceptance of my new reality
I left my ex-husband soon after that “memorable” Thanksgiving. Then, I went through a period of reflection.
Those were lonely years I spent hoping my son would forgive me for showing the ugly side of the family to his
new bride. One year, I rented a cabin in the San Bernardino mountains and spent New Year’s Eve hiking. Another year, I was alone and cooked an elaborate meal all throughout Christmas Eve. Now, I have a long list of strategies to compensate for the cultural demand for joy during this part of the year.
On Thanksgiving in 2020, my children and I shared a dinner over Zoom. Awkward and delayed, it was the best
we could do in the dire circumstances of that first pandemic year. I keep the screen shot of the occasion: four smiling faces framed in three rectangles, champagne flutes raised. The image captures the resilience of a family who didn’t succumb to despair and kept a bright spirit through a dark period.
The word ‘family’ is fluid
When my children were young and we lived in a small town in Oklahoma, we invited other immigrant families or people who were alone for the holidays.
Guests poured in dressed for a party, carrying their own traditional dishes and sharing their own holiday stories. The children received a free lesson in multiculturalism while we provided an international version of an extended family. At the very least, we all learned that the dinner doesn’t have to include turkey — and it doesn’t have to be handmade.
Carolina Solorio, an Angeleno with more than a decade of experience in entertainment, knows about having a good time with or without family. She gets emotional recalling her cherished childhood memories of Las Posadas for Christmas. In Mexican tradition, a group of friends will knock on the door on Christmas Eve and ask if they can stay there. The host must answer, “I give you Posada,” and a potluck party ensues. Las Posadas have been part of Olvera Street since 1930.
If you find yourself alone for a holiday (perhaps the kids are with their other parent), attend events and gatherings without worrying about being the odd one out. Last year, I felt honored to be invited to a friend’s Thanksgiving dinner, and all I had to do to have a good time was bring a present and watch my manners.
Get rid of toxicity
After my unleashed-tongue lesson, I became adamant about curating my personal space. Nobody sits with me at a table who doesn’t have the intention of sharing joy. There might be 100 excuses to accept meeting with toxic in-laws, but there is no better excuse than “I don’t want to.”
If your partner doesn’t understand, then there is something fundamentally wrong in the partnership that needs revisiting. But that’s a topic for another article.
I don’t wait until the third week of December to think about what to do. That’s how people get depressed. I am proactive in the pursuit of joy. In Los Angeles, the possibilities of multicultural experiences are endless.
Instead of Black Friday, a nice day at the beach with the kids or at the park to test that new bike are excellent choices for a family who needs to watch their expenses. Last year, I went hiking with a Sierra Club group to La Puente Hills in Hacienda Heights. It was totally free, and I made a new group of friends.
In Lynwood, Plaza Mexico celebrates Christmas with dancers and musicians. Solorio’s eyes sparkle when speaking about the colorful parades in L.A. County. From Pasadena to San Pedro, there seems to be a parade in every area of our city. They are not all affiliated with Christmas. The Crenshaw District often fills with music and color for a Kwanzaa parade and the Skirball Center has hosted Hanukkah festivals.
For adults on their own, like me, Solorio says many venues celebrate during the entire season. SoHo DanceLA has a Christmas gala. The Golden Rose in Buena Park celebrates Christmas with a big party. Steven Steakhouse in Commerce City serves dinner and has the best salsa party in town.
This year, Alice’s daughter will join her father and his extended family for Thanksgiving in another state — and Alice welcomes the opportunity to reflect and plan her next steps.
On Christmas in 2022, both my sons and my daughter-in-law came to visit. We went to a bar to enjoy a conversation over cocktails before picking up my daughter-in-law’s mother at the airport. Then, we had a non-traditional Christmas dinner at a Thai restaurant in Long Beach. They left the next day for their home cities. All the sorrows I had endured in the years following my divorce were worth every second of that unassuming familial moment.
Burgos says that the antidote for the holiday blues is to “enter the experience without expectations. Be present, witness and participate fully, thinking, ‘We are going to have a good time.’”
When the fireworks in my neighborhood announced the start of 2023, I poured myself a glass of champagne and said a toast, wishing my children and myself prosperity and health in the year to come. Then, I sat down and read a book.
I am content.
Lisbeth Coiman is a bilingual writer from Venezuela. She is the author of “I Asked the Blue Heron: A Memoir” and “Uprising / Alzamiento” (Finishing Line Press).