The Turkey Trail: Which ‘Home’ for the Holidays?
When we were in our early 20s, a friend of mine called it “the turkey trail:” Thanksgiving dinner at 2:00 at her mother’s house, another full holiday meal at his mother’s at 6:00. Each mother was widowed and couldn’t bear the idea of celebrating any holiday without one of her kids. And each kid, now young adult, couldn’t bear being the one that would disappoint mother. So, at each house, the young couple felt obliged to eat enthusiastically and almost to pretend that the other family didn’t exist. In December, they went through it again, this time in the form of painful negotiations about whose house got them first for Christmas.
Every year, I watch the issues around the turkey trail come up for friends and clients alike as the holiday season approaches. Some families manage to find creative solutions that really work. Other families are so painfully fair about who goes where, that everyone ends up feeling vaguely guilty and unhappy no matter what they do. Still others greet every November with new dread as they try to figure out what to do this year. What’s really going on?
Often enough, the problem is a developmental issue that people don’t have a name for or a friendly way to understand. Marriage, then the arrival of grandchildren, marks an important shift in primary loyalty from the family in which we grew up to the new family unit.
The negotiations about where and how we spend which holidays is an important exercise in establishing who we are in relation to each other as a couple and what roles we take in relation to our extended families. Done well, these negotiations lead to comfortable, healthy relationships among all family members. Done badly, there’s a price: The new family may not develop a strong enough identity to sustain it through hard times. Tension stays between the generations, coloring every family event. Where people spend each holiday can become a point scored in a painful contest of loyalties.
The issue often comes to a head when the new family has children in the preschool years. There comes a time when it becomes very clear that it is just too difficult to pack up the kids, the kid paraphernalia, the gifts, and the contribution to the holiday dinner — all to make the sojourn “home” for the holidays. It becomes important for the new family to stop rushing to get somewhere else and to let themselves enjoy a leisurely Christmas morning or first Hanukkah night, to let the children enjoy the gifts they have just received, and to let the adults relax. In the natural evolution of a family, “home” is no longer where the parents lived as children. “Home” is right here.
Some families make this natural process so unnecessarily painful. The older generation feels rejected, unappreciated, and angry. The younger generation feels pressured, guilty, and resentful. Because they don’t recognize that what is going on is a healthy shift in family loyalties, people start pushing at each other in hurtful ways. Sometimes awful things get said as the young family begins to try to establish their own traditions and the older generation tries to hold on to what is familiar. The family eventually does reconfigure, but the sting of how it was done shadows the holiday season for years.