As an only child I'm often asked whether I was sad and lonely growing up without siblings. To which I always answer, not at all. I had an active and social childhood and didn't miss what I'd never had, with one major exception: holidays.
While my parents surrounded me with friends and more distant relations most of the year, when it came time for big celebrations like Thanksgiving, all those people usually dispersed back to their own families and we were left with just the three of us sharing a turkey. That could be sad and lonely.
That isn't the most terrible problem in the world, but it is a common enough one. In fact, a recent letter to popular, two-time TED speaker and New York-based psychologist Guy Winch on the TED Ideas blog reads basically like it could have been written by me.
"My nuclear family consists of just two other people: my father and my sister," writes the anonymous correspondent. "Our Thanksgiving dinners most often consist of we three, with a relative or family friend or two. That's all. When I hear people talking about the crowds coming to their houses for Thanksgiving and having to get extra tables and chairs to fit everyone, I'm envious and -- I'll admit -- a bit lonely."
So what does Winch recommend this member of a tiny family do? His advice is sheer genius (and I am totally stealing it next year).
Time to update your definition of family
First, Winch points out that, in her letter the writer claims to have "friends who are as emotionally close to me as my family members." The importance of this kind of "chosen family" to her is hardly unique.
"More and more of us need and have close functional relationships with non-family members that fulfill the roles once fulfilled almost exclusively by members of one's nuclear or extended family," Winch writes. That means we all "need to redefine what 'family' means -- to reconsider who our family is so it reflects the actual realities of our lives."
That's pretty obvious. The trouble with putting this straightforward idea into practice, as any member of a tiny family can tell you, is that your chosen family is generally off with their real family around the holidays.
You need to incorporate your family-like-friends into you holidays more if you want your gatherings to be less depressing. It's also probably true that, as it stands, these people have obligations elsewhere. Winch has a brilliant solution to this impasse.
The solution to your Thanksgiving loneliness is... January?
Break the logjam by kicking off your new chosen family holiday tradition in January. "I propose that you initiate a gathering that brings together the individuals, couples and smaller nuclear family units who are the functional members of Three-Family [Winch's preferred term for your larger community of intentional family]," he writes.
He further suggests "that your first Three-Family gathering take place this January -- because many people's holiday plans for November and December are already set by now and because January is a time in which many of us could use some comfort and cheer."
By kicking things off with an unexpected January invitation you not only gather your chosen family when they're actually available, but also start building a sense of belonging and mutual holiday rituals.
Don't be constrained by tradition. Eat whatever you want. Listen to the music you choose. Share resolutions or things you're grateful for. You are free to format your gathering in whatever way appeals to you. The point is to plant the seed of the idea that holidays need not be restricted to people with whom you share blood ties.
"By having your first celebration in January, you'll familiarize the people in your Three-Family group with each other and set the stage for them to consider joining your larger Thanksgiving gathering next year," says Winch. "Yes, some members of your Three-Family will no doubt have other obligations next Thanksgiving, but there are bound to be those who'd happily join your nuclear family and some who'd be thrilled to have an excuse to ditch their traditional feuds and squabbles."
So there you have it fellow only children, those living far from home, and other assorted folks with limited people to invite to their holiday table. You now have an expert's endorsement to go out there and try to poach your friends away to your own festivities. Just be smart about it and get started in January.
Do that and you might find that Thanksgiving is far more joyful next year.