Holidays are Hard: Here are Some Reasons Why

Karen Gross
5 min readNov 22, 2023

We expect holidays will be wonderful. Or, stated differently, we hope they will be wonderful. The advertising industry seems keen on showing us how marvelous holidays can be as the family gathers and everyone shares together a delicious meal and equally comfortable conversations.

That may be true for some families in some cultures in some cities or towns. But, for many, the holidays are just plain hard. Now, they can be hard for many reasons, some more profound and intractable than others.

There are those who have lost loved ones for whom there will be an empty seat — literally or figuratively — at the table. Just read the several poignant opinion pieces in the NYTimes written by Sarah Wildman about the loss of her daughter Orli in the past year. Hard. Impossibly hard in some ways. And she is not the only one by a long stretch who has lost a loved one or two over the past year, making this the first holiday without their presence. And, there are those who loved ones — young and old and in between — are in hospitals or rehab facilities and who are unable to join in the family festivities. Hard. Impossibly hard in some ways.

But, I want to focus on holidays being hard for other reasons — perhaps less powerful ones in some senses but tough nonetheless.

Consider divorced or separated families and who attends and does not. Consider families where members are scattered far and wide, including in a war zone. Consider families where finances are tight and celebratory food is not an option. Consider families where previous deaths have not been processed and they all get reactivated by the current holiday.

OK. Now move to yet another level. Consider families that simply do not get along. Not all biological families work well. No shock there. Some have long term disputes. Some have political divisions. Some have sensitivities to harms done recently. Some family members don’t even feel like family; they feel like outsiders. With family dynamics, we seem to have memories like elephants (assuming they have long memories).

Yes, all three reasons can come together like a venomous Venn diagram but it is the latter group that has my attention today. And that is because, as I head off for Thanksgiving with my mother who is 97 (assuming no illness and travel dilemmas) and our extended family (broadly, very broadly, defined), I can’t help but reflect back on last year’s holiday celebration. There is one situation that sticks in my mind to this day sadly — and, to be clear, my sister conducts the most amazing wonderful delicious warm welcoming Thanksgiving one could ever hope for in this lifetime. I adore her and her Thanksgivings.

My well-educated quasi relative (my age) was seated near me. A remarkable physician by every imaginable measure. He’s saved many many lives. He cares. And, he is politically right and I am politically left (way way left — so left I might fall over the edge). My book club had just finished reading Empire of Pain and when I raised it and the topic of the Sacklers, my quasi relative’s wife popped up from her seat (she’s a physician too) and exclaimed loudly: I cannot take another argument. Off she sort of stomped. For real. She actually marched off — visibly saying: I can’t take it again.

What argument I observed to myself. I wasn’t fighting; we weren’t fighting. I was raising a topic to which her husband responded. Her husband hadn’t even responded with more than a sentence or two — and it was at a voice level that seemed firm but not over the top. I am sensitive to tone and would have noticed if he had been snarky. He wasn’t the least bit offensive or angry or disagreeable.

And whomever we blame for our opioid crisis (no one individual takes the blame), it is an issue affecting millions that is worth discussing. I am an educator and it affects schools for sure. Drug addiction seems like, as topics go, a safe one. It isn’t about sex. It isn’t about guns (exactly). It isn’t about politics (exactly). It is about addiction that affects many of all genders, races, ethnicities and social class. Big problem; few quality solutions.

Consider this just described example as one of many that occur in one version or another at Thanksgivings across the nation. A person leaps up from the Thanksgiving table in advance of or during an argument (or disagreement or even in this instance a conversation) among two grown ups (they may or may not be part of the argument).

Why? Because she feared we would fight? Or fight unfairly? Or be nasty? Seriously? True, it could be or get nasty and if it had turned nasty, one can have lots of responses to that including: let’s change the topic. Or, best to avoid this particular subject. And we would be well served to think about and raise the James Ryan’s question: Can we at least agree that…..?

Here’s my point: at Thanksgiving, we bring our baggage with us and our long standing gripes and concerns. And we act like the children we were when we were children, not like mature adults. Grown men and women can agree to disagree without meanness or without vituperative speech. Goodness knows, we all don’t agree. There’s a bigger lesson there — it goes far beyond families and Thanksgiving.

So, to my quasi relative’s wife and everyone like her and the rest of us too, it would be good to be thoughtful stewards of ourselves and our baggage. Be bigger and better. Be grown up. Bring out the best in others. Walking out is uncalled for absent violence or nastiness or meanness or humiliation or harassment. Bring out the kindness and smear it over the turkey. And, be thankful for what one has ….. and respectful and mindful of those who are not so fortunate.

This Thanksgiving, I will sit at the table. I will raise issues that are on my mind (school absenteeism; book banning; the need for younger politicians; art). And I will not leap and leave during a conversation — unless someone takes a swing at me or is unnecessarily spiteful. And if I am seated near my quasi relative and his spouse, I’d welcome that. I’m not a fighter and previous stomping doesn’t bar present good behavior.

I am too old and too gray and too experienced to allow tough topics to be avoided because we see a fight coming. We can only talk about the weather for so long. So, let me ask again: Can’t we disagree without a fight?

I think so. I hope so. For my family and yours as well.

Happy Thanksgiving.



Karen Gross

Author, Educator, Artist & Commentator; Former President, Southern Vermont College; Former Senior Policy Advisor, US Dept. of Education; Former Law Professor