While the promise of freshly carved turkey and heaping spoons of dressing drives the anticipation for Thanksgiving, it is the chance to gather with family and loved ones that makes the holiday special.
Thanksgiving and Christmas, more than other traditional American holidays, emphasize the large family meet-up.
But for people who are unable to be with family, dining alone can be a sad prospect.
Our mobile society means many move away from family to pursue career opportunities, and the one-day window off from work can make traveling home too stressful a feat to enjoy the holiday. Plus, airline and travel expenses may make the journey too expensive even if time off from the job is available.
Yet while celebrating the holiday alone may not be ideal, it also should not trigger feelings of despair or inadequacy.
Wes Eades, a licensed professional counselor who advises couples and families, said most single people build a social life around co-workers and community acquaintances.
“When the holidays hit, 90 percent of folks have other plans, and so if you’re a single person living in Waco and all of your social community is from work, then it’s quite likely that a lot of your friends are going to be out of town,” Eades said.
To counter being alone, he suggested that some people may forge their own holiday feast by rounding up friends who are in a similar situation.
Eades, an ordained minister, also joked that he tells clients who moved by themselves to a new city to link up with a local church “whether you believe in God or not” because church members will likely extend a warm invitation for a single person to join their holiday dinners.
Baylor University has long recruited members of area churches to serve as host families for international students during the holidays as part of its People Around the World Sharing initiative in the Center for International Education.
The host families help the students navigate life in Waco and get immersed in U.S. and Texas culture, including experiencing a true Thanksgiving meal.
Melanie Smith, international student relations coordinator, said about half of Baylor’s 537 international students take advantage of the program.
“(Thanksgiving) also hits about the time they get midterm grades back, and it’s about the seventh or eighth week of school where a lot of homesickness comes in,” Smith said. “For some of them, it’s a bad time to be alone, and we do our best to find those students and make sure they have a place to go.”
Last year at Thanksgiving, Smith hosted Jeanne Samake, an international student from Mali. Samake traveled with the family to Smith’s mother’s house in Birmingham, Ala. They also visited with residents in a nursing home who could not spend the holiday with family.
Samake, a junior biology/pre-med student, came to the U.S. for the first time in 2010 to start her studies at Baylor.
While she enjoyed the experience of a traditional Thanksgiving meal, Samake said Christmas is a harder time to be away from her family, which includes five sisters and two brothers. In addition, the day after Christmas is her birthday.
Samake has cousins in Houston and Fort Worth who she will visit around Christmas, but she still misses being part of a larger gathering surrounded by her siblings.
“Community really matters for me, because I grew up in that environment of lots of family being around,” said Samake, a native French speaker who has learned English since coming to Waco. “To be a part of that (Thanksgiving) celebration for the holiday and to be welcome, that was really wonderful.”
In addition to separation from families, Eades said, holidays carry an added sadness if they fall on or near the anniversary of a loved one’s death, or if the day generates fond memories of the person.
But Eades said people shouldn’t feel pressured to ignore hurt feelings or hide their loneliness to put on a happy face for the holiday.
“The truth is that there’s real pain around some of these things, but to be able to ask the question, ‘Is that all there is?’ ” Eades said. “You don’t have to play the ‘Look on the bright side’ game. It is possible to feel great sadness and great contentment at the same time.”
Make the best of Thanksgiving
• Friendly dinner: If you have friends or co-workers who also may not have Thanksgiving plans, arrange a potluck dinner and have everyone bring their favorite fall dishes. Another option could be attending the Waco Salvation Army’s Thanksgiving Day dinner from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. at its Community Kitchen, 300 Webster Ave., an event that can double as a service opportunity.
• Texas tradition: The only thing more traditional than the Thanksgiving after-dinner nap is watching the Dallas Cowboys. And this year’s game has greater local interest because Robert Griffin III comes back to Texas to take on the ’Boys with the Washington Redskins. Local restaurants such as Buffalo Wild Wings and Applebee’s will be open in time for the gameday action.
• Money moves: If you truly need some busy work to occupy your time, volunteer to work on the holiday and rack up some overtime. Counselor Wes Eades said his wife has worked as a hospice nurse for 12 years, and staffers rotate working holidays. “A lot of the single people would volunteer for those days, with a very kind attitude of, ‘You’ve got family here, I don’t.’ ” The time-and-a-half wages also could give you a leg up on another holiday tradition: after-Thanksgiving sales.
• Tech talks: Sometimes there’s nothing like looking into Dad’s face or seeing Mom’s smile on the holiday. And if you can’t hit the road to see someone in person, technology has plenty of options for videochats, from Skype to FaceTime. And if the family is spread out across the country or globe, Google Hangouts can link up to 10 different users at once.
• Rest and relaxation: Eades said the holiday could be a good time for a moment of solitude, which he notes is different than wallowing in loneliness. “When I was a kid, there just wasn’t that much going on to entertain you,” Eades said. “A lot of the day was spent playing with your friends in the neighborhood, and if your friends weren’t available, we had to find a way to make comfort with just being alone and enjoying being alone.”