Thanksgiving is upon us; a time of traditions, family, and expectations. The Burns’ have a few traditions. We have tamales and chili on Wednesday night. We have a special sausage from Goliad for breakfast on Thankgiving morning. We eat around 1:30. And at some point, we see a movie. My vote is Care of Magical Creatures and How to Find Them. We’ll see how compelling a case I can make. This year, my brothers and their families will join us at our parents’ house. I’m never happier than when I’m with my brothers.
But Thanksgiving can be a very difficult time for people, even for people who actually like being around their family. As I prepare to make my Aunt Pat’s fabulous cornbread stuffing and a sweet potato casserole, I’m mindful of expectations. Nothing does more damage to a family gathering than expectations. This is where resentment and disappointment and arguments begin.
Take the sweet potatoes. I’ve never made this dish. I couldn’t find the ingredients I expected to use to make precisely the recipe my mom has made since we were children. I am stressed out about it. What if people expect it to be exactly the same? My new motto with cooking has been to take the easy route. I don’t have time in my life to make everything from scratch the way I used to. I want to open a can of candied yams, mix in some butter and spice, and cover with marshmallows. I know for a fact that that will be good. How can I lose with yams, sugar, spice, butter, and marshmallows? It’s a sure thing, but it may not be what my mom has been making. Maybe she uses eggs and evaporated milk. Maybe I should ask. But how silly is it that I’m stressed about meeting an expectation that may not even exist? ( By the way, I just called my mom. Simple. Mash them with a little brown sugar and cover with marshmallows.)
With an expectation comes the possibility of disappointment. If you expect a certain interpretation of a tradition, say mom’s sweet potato casserole, and you don’t get it, you might be disappointed, and you might resent me for causing that. I’ve struggled with this for years. If all of my many rules and expectations for Thanksgiving and Christmas were not met, I could be a pretty miserable soul and a pain to be around. Expectations lead to suffering.
So why do we do this to each other and to ourselves? Why are traditions so important that we would get upset about them? A tradition is something we did for the very first time once and somebody liked it enough to do it again. Take fruitcake. In the old days, this was one of the few ways you could get fruit in the winter, and fruit was a wonderful treat. And so fruitcake became popular at Christmas. Fruit, nuts, and cake. What’s not to like? Personally, I love it. But most do not, and yet, it is still a tradition. And people still buy them. Perhaps you had a favorite relative who always brought them and you hold the tradition to honor them. Perhaps it makes you think of the many gatherings with the fruitcake and some special punch. Perhaps it just doesn’t feel like Christmas without one. Maybe now the tradition is to complain about how awful they are. This tradition just won’t seem to go away no matter how much people hate it. But is it really worth it to do a tradition that nobody likes except for crazy Uncle David? Perhaps I hold the family hostage over it. Hey! Don’t forget, crazy Uncle David haaaaass to have his fruitcake. He will throw a fit. That’s not a very fun tradition. What an awful thing to do to a family with that expectation, and yet people do it.
You think fruitcake is too small a thing to get upset about? Wrong! For years, my wife’s grandmother gave us all fruitcakes. She was very poor, and so one year she stopped buying them. I expressed my disappointment in a really immature way in front of everyone. “What? No fruitcake? Awwwwwwwwwe.” But the look on her face told me that she felt bad and didn’t appreciate me putting that on her.
This year, we might need to make some allowances for our movie tradition. This is a great tradition, but this year is different; we have 5 little ones who can’t go see a movie. My kids are grown, but my brothers’ kids are young. The reality is, that when you have kids, you have to make some sacrifices. You might not get to go to the movies when you want to. But people have expectations. People might be disappointed by a change to this tradition. I know I will. I really look forward to seeing a movie with my brothers. But it might not work out that way. Our expectations might not be met.
I’m not willing to say that we should throw out our traditions. I believe in the value of traditions. What I am suggesting is that we learn to manage our expectations. With a little forethought, I can anticipate a deviation or I can prepare myself for the possibility. None of this is worth being bent out of shape over. Even the expectation of always getting to see your family can be unreasonable. It just doesn’t always work out. Not everyone has that.
My motto this Thanksgiving is go with the flow. The stuffing is too drippy? Go with the flow. The sweet potatoes are too bland? Go with the flow. We don’t see my movie? Go with the flow. Who knows? Maybe we start a new tradition. Maybe we stay home and play a board game so everyone can participate. We actually bought one just in case.
From a Christian stand point, when we get together we are joined by Christ. We are blessed in some special way; perhaps in some brand new way. May we be open to the possibility that God has something better in mind than our own human expectations.