Thanksgiving is a historically complicated, inaccurately mythologized holiday. It’s also one of excess. But it’s part of our cultural fabric and brings millions of American families together to reconnect and reminisce over heaping portions of food. By all accounts, Thanksgiving is the holiday Americans look forward to the most and do their damnedest to travel home for, despite perceived holiday stress. In 2018, roughly 54 million people drove 50 miles or further to be with their loved ones — an increase of 4.3 percent than the year before.
But, as far as the Internet is concerned, Thanksgiving is some sort of nightmare hellscape, one where myriad horrors await. Perform a cursory Google search for Thanksgiving and among the recipes for pecan pie, cornbread stuffing, and pieces about how to not burn down your home while deep frying a turkey, you’ll be met with hundreds of stories that make it seem like we all hate our families, loathe any time with them, and don’t know how to disagree productively with anyone. On a quick glance, I found: “The Best Places in Dallas to Hide from Family This Thanksgiving,” “The 8 Things Your Family Will Argue About At Thanksgiving Dinner,” a Huffington Post branded Thanksgiving “argument generator,” and a NY Daily News Thanksgiving “survival guide.”
Given what floats around the Internet about Thanksgiving, you’d think it was akin to a 12-hours of dragging your naked body over broken glass while listening to Rebecca Black’s “Friday” on repeat. Thanksgiving, according to the algorithmic god for which so much of this content is created, is a day where one minute you might be drawn into a battle your mean, terrible in-laws and the next you’re about to go to blows with your cousin or brother. Thanksgiving, Internet culture declares, is a war of a holiday. All the doomsday-prepping articles that are SEO-optimized and crafted lovingly for despairing readers to batten down the hatches for a turkey and gravy slathered showdown.
Is it good to know how to engage positively with family members with whom you often butt heads or emotionally prepare yourself for conversations that will occur over the cornucopia? Sure. As G.I. Joes reminded us, Knowing is half the battle. But does Thanksgiving deserve articles like “Psychologists Explain How to Deal With The Nightmare That Is Thanksgiving Dinner”? Does it deserve “20 Thanksgiving horror stories to stress you out before the big day?” Does the ire that Thanksgiving rankles from new media, Google news carousels, and endless advice columns actually hold up to scrutiny? Do we actually, really, hate Thanksgiving? Do we actually hate our families?
The answer, it appears, is no. For the most part, Americans do not hate their families that much, or we at least don’t hate the situations that bring us together. (Some restrictions may apply.) For instance, a 2015 Gallup-Healthways Wellbeing Index Study found that Thanksgiving was the first of three of the happiest days of the year, annually. The day even beat out the 4th of July and Christmas. More than two-thirds of the 175,000 survey respondents said that they spent Thanksgiving with a lot of happiness and not a lot of stress. It turns out that taking time off work, seeing family and friends, and diving into turkey and all the fixings isn’t half bad.
So what is it, then? Why is the cultural myth (or rather, extremely online type of cultural myth) insistence that the holidays are bad so persistent? Why do Internet writers continue to pen stories about how much they hate the holidays and that everyone hates the holidays when most Americans report being pretty happy on Thanksgiving and Christmas and around the holidays in general? Are we grinches? Are we disingenuous? Are we pretending to like the holiday or are we actually just pretending to hate it? And who is ‘we?’”
It’s not as though this single day of the year is something radically new. But because the Internet is the Internet, stories about how to handle horrid families and reasons why Thanksgiving is the worst gets clicks and shares. We see the stories and start to believe the conversation. It can be stressful to be around family members that might believe that the President is an alien or that Pizzagate is real. But these battles have taken place over decades: holiday traditions are about people who might not like each other if they weren’t family getting together and bickering and laughing and loving each other. Read all the stories you want. Prepare for the conversations ahead. We live in combative times. But remember that at the end of the day, you’re there to enjoy time with family — the good and the bad. These shared memories are what make us who we are.