Since I was of age to move out of my parent’s house, it was a no-brainer for me to begin the holiday traditions only with families of choice or shall I say “my tribe.”  Many would think that a curious plan. But you see, I share no warm, Hallmark memories with my family and instead I happen to have been born in a toxic family, more American Horror Story than American Apple and Pumpkin Pie. For me, self-care is primary, especially if you feel worse about yourself when departing a holiday gathering then when you arrived. My mental health is a personal choice and I don’t wish to have Thanksgiving dinner in which food cannot be digested due to stress and anxiety.  Your mental health matters. Why would I want to be re-traumatized for the sake of lukewarm mashed potatoes and feigned normalcy?  There comes a time when you need to put your sanity first and focus on you.


I do have to give credit where credit is due… my family knew how to dine. Despite all the glorious trimmings and foods my Viennese family prepared during all holidays, I finally stopped attending “Blistering Weiner Schnitzel World.” Being emotionally wounded rendered my all that rich, delectable food indigestible.  We also feasted on homemade Matzo Ball soup – but those quickly converted into darts if a disgruntled family member would surely, at some point, toss one across the table over a disagreeable statement. Politics, business, and relationships always dominated the conversation. I realized this meal was not worth the torture.


Holidays with my family left me damaged. And finally, I realized I would so prefer the company of friends –people I cared about and who were kind. A sweet, thoughtful lady who cleaned our house for years, Clara, introduced me to my first non-family holiday dinner. Working for us, she was privy to how long my emotional hangovers lasted and how much time it took me to detox.  So there I was, knocking on the door of a modest New Orleans shotgun house with peeling paint and a family I barely knew.  Clara stood at the door in her house dress and apron and a smile that spread for miles along, with teeth like Chiclets. A big bear hug awaited me and I took in the fabulous smells of their authentic soul food. She took my hand and we strolled through the first bedroom (perfect shotgun layout), a second bedroom with a huge armoire, and then to the best room in the house, the kitchen. Generations of Clara’s family sat here, there, and everywhere while strangers hugged me and children embraced my knees. I was so happy I could barely breathe. There was laughter; one liners, humorous discussions, and knee slapping while children tried to sneak into the chips and dip. Luther Vandross crooned on the radio and the entire vibe made me feel like I died and gone to heaven.


In these modest surroundings, we all laughed so much my face hurt. Mismatched dishes, paper towels for napkins, cutlery from every dime store in town, jumbo bottles of ketchup and mustard and huge pitchers of iced sweet tea. The men-folk enjoyed their Bud Light in a can and a few had wine in a box, with an orange clearance sticker. Eyeing the kitchen, I realized the appliances were so old the Salvation Army would not have accepted them. But I swear you could lick ice cream off the spotless, chipped linoleum floor. Everyone included me in conversations, they were complimentary and kind, and I never wanted to leave that little shotgun house. These were people who took care of their own and me.


Another holiday meal, many years later, included two underpaid professors who lived in a tiny apartment and could barely pay their rent. We feasted on sandwiches and Ramen noodles with bottles of generic Sangria while trading office secrets and past “Mommy Dearest” type holiday dinners.  I think we used every dish they owned that day, but the even so it took less than ten minutes to do the dishes in their tiny sink. Peace, love and joy were in this house. When you assert yourself and create boundaries with your family, you would be surprised how comforting it is to be with friends. As we age, we get rid of people-pleasing scenarios but it is never too late to start. Pretention is an easy way to insulate yourself when you don’t have real joy. Sadly, we busy ourselves, wrapped up in showing off and snapping photos for social media, that we miss out on the deep connection and the most important part of the holiday season – gratitude for what we have.


You may be saying to yourself – How could I eat with strangers and do this to my own family? That’s the thing. The amount of inner turmoil with family is not worth all the turkey and trimmings on the table. So pass on the drama and surround yourself with love and kindness, even if you are not related. I now spend holidays on purpose without my family. Avoid the abuse or control and laugh your way with friends through the holidays.  Have a cocktail or 3, no one is judging you, and you don’t have to duck down from flying Matzo Balls.