Thanksgiving Dinner As Combat Zone: A Guide to Survival

Dear Belladonna Rogers,

I’m having my annual holiday anxiety attack.  In two weeks, I’ll be at the family table with my four competitive, wealthier brothers and sisters who take intense pleasure in looking down on my husband, children and me. We chose less well-paying occupations and, as a result, have less luxurious houses, wardrobes and vehicles than my older siblings.  They range in age from 43 to 50.  I’m 40, and very happy with my work, my husband, and our two children.

With our parents no longer alive, these gatherings have become more intolerable every year. My husband and children feel as I do.

My siblings invariably spend the dinner dropping names of exclusive resorts, designers, and luxury products.

How do you recommend coping with sibling rivalry among adults who, when seated around the Thanksgiving table, become as snarky and mean as they were as children?

Youngest in Youngstown

Dear Youngest,

The opening line of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina is, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”  I beg to differ.  I would suggest that each happy family is happy in its own way;  every unhappy family is unhappy for the same reason: a lack of kindness and empathy in some or all of its members.

Your final paragraph shows that you understand exactly why you’re unhappy with your brothers and sisters, the siblings who vied for parental attention four decades ago who haven’t managed to outgrow the pernicious ways they struggled for recognition when they were learning their ABCs.  Unfortunately, learning one’s ABCs doesn’t always include learning one’s ps and qs — the social skills necessary for well-functioning adulthood.

Many would like to tell their families:

You have at least four options:

(1)  You can skip this Thanksgiving, telling your siblings that you and your husband have invited some friends, colleagues and neighbors who have no families to join you for Thanksgiving.  Yes, family Thanksgiving dinners are traditional, but they’re not required by law.  You have the right to hold your own and make it a happy holiday on your terms. Two weeks ahead is not too late to change course.

(2)  You can tell your family that you have some friends whom you’d like to bring with you.  Sometimes, but not always, the presence of non-family non-combatants provides a buffer, or demilitarized zone that can reduce the chances that families will behave as obnoxiously as possible.


(3)  You and your family can find a USO chapter and help serve Thanksgiving dinners to active members of the armed forces and to veterans. If there’s no local USO, find a local charity that serves or delivers Thanksgiving dinners to the sick, the homeless or others in need.  Let whoever is hosting this year’s family gathering know that you and your immediate family have agreed that the four of you intend to do this from now on.


(4)  You can choose to attend the dinner with your siblings — but with a difference.  Tell yourself in advance that this year you’re not going to let their foreseeable rivalries get on your nerves.  Forewarned is forearmed.  Imagine in advance how ludicrous they’ll be.  At 40, you’re free to view their antics as the pathetic, ludicrous behavior it is.  You have the chance to watch your  siblings vying with one another — rather than to feel that their behavior is a concerted attack on you. Think of how much fun you and your family can have seeing your siblings as the insecure, self-absorbed bozos they are.

If you choose to take this approach, be sure to let your husband and children know beforehand that this year, the four of you are going to enjoy the appalling I-have-more-toys-than-you performance as if you’re in the audience of a truly wretched holiday comedy.  You’ll go, but with a completely different perspective.

When your siblings begin “complaining” about the jet lag they suffer every time they “have to” go skiing in Gstaad, or “must” visit their favorite beach resort on the coast of Thailand, smile at your children.  When they whine that Armani suits aren’t what they used to be, or that Gucci leather isn’t as soft as it once was, wink at your husband.

You can take pleasure in knowing your insecure siblings can’t help themselves now any more than they could 40 years ago. The four of them may be older than you, but you’re the mature one. You’re onto them. Their soaring solipsism and obnoxious ostentation can be a source of months of merriment at your house.

The most important thing to remember at this time of year — and all year — is that you have options.  No one can command you to sit through another one of these jarring jamborees of boorish behavior if you decide, as an adult, to just say no.

Belladonna Rogers


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