Once upon a time, in a log cabin far, far away, snuggled into 15 pristine acres of Vermont, I used to host Thanksgiving events fit for a Hallmark snow globe…

It smells of cinnamon and mulled wine.

Thrill to the detail – small tubes of handmade paper tied with silk ribbon designate seating and are unrolled as I tap my crystal glass with a silver spoon and point to first one guest then another, who unfurl their tiny packages and share the quotes I’ve selected to honor them.

After the feast we read poetry or favorite children’s books aloud as the crackling fire warms our skin and brandy warms our tummies.

Staged against a window of evergreens and drifting snowflakes, a younger friend offers an interpretive dance of thanks, and the little ones get all tangled up in a frolicking game of Twister. There are 28 of us and I’m 50 years old. This makes me happy.

When Joy Becomes Obligation, or Hey, I’m Not Having Fun

Fast forward 10 years. I’m 60 and it’s late Thanksgiving night. I’m forearm deep in dishwater, trash bags are bulging, the living room is ankle deep in celebration detritus, my feet are sore, my desk is piled high with to-dos that I haven’t had time for, and my husband-chef is snoring in the armchair.

Am I happy now? No. I’m simply exhausted. Let’s take a realistic look at what it takes to make holiday magic.

For my 28-guest Thanksgiving extravaganza, it took 120 pieces of silverware, 30 plates, bowls, and saucers, 60 glasses (minimum), moving around the living room furniture to accommodate another table, unpacking then repacking the whole china cabinet, arranging entertainment, and then, of course, days of cooking, cleaning, arranging, preparing, and then cleaning again and breaking down the stage set.

Guests pitched in, but the cold fact is that if you’re doing the hosting, you’ll carry the load.

My husband helped. He shouldered menu planning, shopping, and cooking and helped with wash-up. But a full-on Broadway production for a Thanksgiving crowd is a herculean lift, and by age 60 it was hard to build up the steam I needed to pull it off.

This magician was tired, and the details that cast the magic spell chaffed like chains of obligation rather than songs of thanks.

I’d painted myself into a holiday corner. The magic I’d made for 20 years had become an essential ingredient in others’ holiday bliss.

I needed a change, but the expectations of family and friends pleaded like faces of shivering children pressed against a warm bakery window. Saying “no more” would let them down. Saying “yes would let me down.

What could I do? How could I step back from making magic for others to figure out how to make it for myself? It’s a familiar aging question. How do you love and also let go? How do you take care of others while also honoring and caring for yourself?

Breaking Set-in-Stone Traditions

First, it’s essential to understand that taking care of yourself is not being selfish. When you honor the importance of self-care, you’re modeling the health-giving power of making the right changes at the right times. Those changes are part and parcel of evolving and maturing into your next-phase self.

Aging means changing. Changing is good. But what’s the right change and what’s the right time? If we knew that, all of this would be much easier, and I could just say, “Hey, I’m 65. It’s time to turn left.”

So, one year, even though I didn’t know what I should do, I knew exactly what I couldn’t. I couldn’t make Thanksgiving magic for a crowd. I broke the tradition somewhat dramatically, announcing that my husband and I would be taking a long weekend in Montreal instead.

We had a fun, relaxing time, and everyone else figured out their own take on the holiday. The following year, rather than the big dinner, we hosted a Black Friday afternoon party featuring a children’s musician and pot-luck desserts.

Now, 10 years later, we host small family Thanksgiving dinners or travel to Maine to celebrate with our daughter-in-law’s family. It’s cozy and manageable.

I’m proud of the amazing holiday events I used to design and host. It was fun and was my way of giving thanks for those who enrich my life. Back then, the work was fueled by the holiday spirit, which is love.

But over the years, as my motivation slipped from an airy sense of joy into a leaden sense of obligation, Thanksgiving just felt depleting and exhausting. That still, small voice that we all have but we often ignore, was screaming at me to “Stop it!” So, I did.

Is It Time for a Change?

As those of us over 60 know, one size never fits all even when the label says otherwise. I’m not advocating for you to make a change. I’m just asking you to honestly assess how you feel about your holiday traditions.

Staring this question straight in the face can be disquieting. You may be concerned about hurting others, losing your status as the matriarch, or giving up one of the few activities that preserve fragile family connections.

It can be complicated, and even if you decide a tradition is more an obligation than a joy, you may find keeping it is less painful than letting it go.

Yes, you can change traditions if you want to. Yes, you can rewrite the expected holiday narrative into one that fits your needs and nurtures your spirit and health. The changes can be radical or gentle, knee-jerk or well-considered, announced or discussed. It’s up to you.

If you find the disruption of abandoning traditions more painful than keeping them, you’ll still benefit from exploring your relationship to expectations. The more we understand ourselves and our motivations, the better prepared we are to navigate the season and find joy in all its nooks and crannies.

As you move into this holiday season, take some time to check in with yourself.

Which of your holiday traditions are still working for you? Do they nurture you and make you feel alive and invigorated? If you could change something, what would it be? Can you add something or subtract something that will improve your experience? Please share your thoughts with our community.

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