Yes, big gatherings can be stressful, depending on one's psychological makeup. They are definitely stressful for me. And since my siblings and I did not grow up with the Thanksgiving tradition, the stress it creates is even less fathomable to me. But my wife does have that tradition, so she has put up with it.
This year, after we discovered that there were only going to be three of us at the dinner, I made a offer that most wives find hard to refuse. Let's go out to a nice reataurant! And so we are.
This decision makes me feel a little bit like when I decided, a few years ago, to hire a lawn service. What a great feeling of liberation. Lots of fun, good food, and no need to look forward to being exhausted at the end of it. What more to be thankful for?
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How do we (my wife and I) handle it all? Simple:
We opt out.
If someone invites us to holiday dinner, and we like them, we'll go, but that's about it. If we don't like them, we make up an excuse, and go somewhere else, or stay at home.
We don't go shopping on Black Friday; heck, we don't go shopping at all! Not for others, not for ourselves. Why have that stress? Why rack up such debt (indeed - why screw up our current debt free status)? Ultimately, such gifts hardly ever make the recipient(s) "long term" happy. In many cases, the gift is tossed into the corner once the next "shiny thing" comes along.
Better for us to buy each other small gifts throughout the year - true "surprises" - as the thought arises. For everyone else, they are on their own unless we are feeling extra generous. As a matter of fact, we bypass -all- of the holidays, including our birthdays and anniversarys.
It seems daunting to do this. It is all nothing more than manufactured peer-pressure of consumerism; we are just drowned in it, and seemingly know no way out. If you can, though, the relief is immeasurable.
The first step is to get rid of your television, and perhaps put some kind of an "ad-blocker" on your web browsing (I recommend a very large hosts file). Then work on paying off your unsecured debt (credit card and otherwise). Work on a workable monthly budget, and stick to it. Build savings; one good relief valve is known as "f-u" money - 6 to 12 months worth of your take-home salary as savings. It can basically allow you to have leverage to tell your boss "f-u! I'm finding another job!" without the stress that entails (don't get me wrong - there will be stress, but you won't be stuck in a bad job, either).
Drive used cars, that are paid off (we only pay cash for our cars - cars are -not- worth having a monthly payment). Live within your means. No debt. No credit cards (or if you do have them, use them wisely, and pay them off before the billing cycle is over). Opt out of the consumer peer pressure. Oh - and expand you mind, and read tons of books, go for walks, etc.
Yes - people will think you are nuts. People will almost recoil when you tell them how you live. People will actually think you are poor. Others will think you are wealthy (I've seen both!). It is weird what happens when you commit to this kind of a lifestyle.
What isn't weird is the lack of stress; that is a welcome blessing. Indeed, people will see this as well, and they may ask you how; of course, you'll tell them how, in great detail, and they'll look shocked. But sometimes, they'll follow through as well (it isn't easy - not at all - becoming debt free with savings is not easy), and they'll wonder why they didn't do it to begin with.
Indeed - this is something we -should- be teaching our children to do - but it is easier to drag them onto the treadmill with us, than it is to step off.
I took a few days off before the holiday and immersed myself in microcontrollers and FPGAs. That was enough pre-unwinding to pretty much head off any stress before it got here.
I also re-watched the three (extended edition) Lord of the Rings movies to better prepare myself to the upcoming release of the Hobbit.
For one thing, I *don't* insert myself into the process. I'm a decent cook, but my SO is a far better one, and loves to do it. If she wants help, she asks, If not, I stay out of her way. She can do it better than I can, and I believe in giving the job to the best person to do it.
For another, neither of us have family anywhere near, so it's not an all-hands gathering. We may simply go out to dinner, or do something modest at home, like we did this time. There's no reason to buy, prepare, and cook a full sized turkey to have turkey: She bought some turkey parts, which we had with heirloom potatoes and Brussels sprouts from the local farmers market.
Pressure? What pressure?
@Duane: "I also re-watched the three (extended edition) Lord of the Rings movies to better prepare myself to the upcoming release of the Hobbit."
I'm re-reading the books. I have the LoTR trilogy in a slip-cased hardcover edition, the Hobbit in an annotated edition, the Silmarillion in hardcover, and about half of the annotated manuscript volumes Tolkien's son has been preparing from his father's papers.
Yes, I'm a geek about this.