Thanksgiving Alone in NYC

I always thought that as we grew older, the holidays lost their magic. I thought impostered beliefs in a jolly man dressed in red, or eating the same dinner for the 22nd time, would take away from the warm feelings we associate with sparkling ribbon, cold mornings, and scents of home-cooked food. But regardless of how old we are, it seems that the holidays retain all their value with the addition of reminiscent joy.

The holidays are as close to magic as our human culture can conjure. Traditions of labor-intensive preparations, hospitable intaking of family, and time-consuming testimonies to friendship and love hardly ever feint in strength or commitment, year after year. It’s a time where people come together, where faces and voices reconvene perhaps the only moment they can.

Yesterday was the second time I spent a holiday untraditionally, away from family and the old homes that most of us trail back to. Furthermore, it was the only time I spent a holiday alone. “Alone”, put in parentheses, because the day before after the holiday was and will be spent in the company of the closest thing to family: friends. The youth-born tradition known as “Friendsgiving”, a millennial kind of holiday I bring with me every far-away place I go - first Sweden, now New York. Masses of plates, potluck-style food, (too many) cozy drinks, and shrills of laughter and exclamation over those things we talk about when we’re twenty-something years old. It has perhaps become one of the most special things about the holidays for all those deemed young adults, and definitely something to be grateful for: celebrating with friends.

But there’s something about the simple fact of a holiday being a holiday that makes you yearn for your family. It’s the same thing that makes you celebrate them in such grandeur. You are giving your thanks to the world, and it is the people who brought you into this world you often feel most thankful for. With everyone I knew visiting their families back “home”, or traveling out of the city, I was all on my own. A strange feeling, but also freeing, filling, and meditative. Filling in the sense that solitude can create opportunity for meditation - I wasn’t with my family, but I was thinking about them. The one I was born with, and the ones I found. I imagined each and every person huddled in warm spaces, celebrating in their own ways. I couldn’t help but smile as I thought about all I had to be thankful for, alone or not.

I watched the Macy’s parade on a projector in our basement before making my way into Manhattan for a Thanksgiving lunch. The moment I stepped outside, loud music rang into my ears. On the corner of the street amassed a large family in excited conversation, barbecuing grub to the tune “Family Reunion”. Alas! The perfect view of holiday magic. My arms raised goosebumps, and the corners of my lips continued to curl up. I stepped on the subway train and reveled in how empty it was compared to most days - a girl with silver-stained hair sat fashionably across from me, two men who appeared to be brothers looked out the window a seat over, and more faces dispersed out, intermittent with cherished empty spaces, a novelty for New York subways. I put up my feet and sprawled across the unoccupied seats.

I wondered: Who are these people? It felt fondly vulnerable, to see people in holiday interim, sharing a subway ride hours before family gatherings. I wondered, how many of these faces are also spending Thanksgiving alone, how many are heading to their old families, new families. Who will these people be at Thanksgiving dinner, and who will they be afterwards? I thought about how everyone has a vision of themselves they truly live, versions of themselves that are often muddled in the memories of an old home or at the voices of mothers.

I got off at Canal Street and started walking towards Little Italy. The streets were calm, intimate spaces of couples, individuals, and small families walking among the only shops and restaurants that remained open. The sky was crisp blue, and threads of light decorated the buildings with scattered shadows.

I made my way into the underground portion of an Italian restaurant for a Thanksgiving celebration for film enthusiasts. I hadn’t known beforehand, but this event occurs every weekend, whereby anyone interested can share a meal, talk about whatever, and enjoy a selected feature film. It was packed. A dark room lit by second-thought lamps, candles, and stained glass doors at the end of the space. Chatter was electric. People sharing where they were from, stories of how they moved, dates of return after an excursion from their home country, explanations of this Thanksgiving attendance. I shared a liter of sangria with a woman from Australia and a woman from Texas. The man from New Delhi next to me ordered the same dish. Suddenly I felt an overwhelming sense of nostalgia. I felt as if I was in Europe, twenty years old with no obligations but the minimal work of a study abroad schedule. Go to a bar afterwards? Check out the Christmas shops? Do something I’ve never done before? I remembered how young I was.

There are two things I love about New York that I’ve never felt anywhere else. The first is the feeling of freedom. In a city where events like underground film-enthusiast dinners occur every hour of every day, you feel as though the limit for exploration goes beyond the confines of our life expectancies. Spend 100 years here and you still might never try every food joint, hear every conversation, discover each new idea or attend each worthwhile event in the borough of Manhattan alone. The opportunity for you to be amazed or excited by something new has no limit (the limit doesn’t exist, in the words of a favorite pastime movie…). The mass number of new faces and friends - both long lasting and fleeting - lets you question who you are. Try new things. Be whatever it is you’re curious to be, because someone else in this city will also be doing the same.

The second thing I love about New York is the feeling of community, by which you never really feel alone. You have a window into all sorts of lives. The large family holding a street party in Brooklyn, the individuals making their way to who-knows-where on the train, and the Australian and Texan spending the holiday in company of other nomads and newcomers. It’s human, it’s refreshing. You understand that you may never truly know these people, and they may never truly know you, but in a sense, everyone does. Through the little pieces of lives you get a glimpse at every single day, you can put together a puzzle of our New York existence, a puzzle in which you play a piece, and they play a piece. Little emotions witnessed, successes and letdowns in the glazed eyes and energized faces of the folks across the street. It’s all alive. We’re all just, living.

I exited the luncheon early to continue my Thanksgiving trek. The air was cold, and the streets more barren, people buying offhand purses and luxury items off the tarps of unlikely businessmen. I tucked away into a Starbucks and searched for open cafes, bars, or shows. Everything was closed. Suddenly the grand vision of an untraditional holiday transformed back into a yearning for family. It was simply a day, I thought, just like any other. I could do anything.

The birds chirped the same and the city looked just as romantic, but it wasn’t just a day. It was a holiday. Maybe that’s why everyone at the luncheon chose to stay, instead of wander forth into the next bar or cafe. It’s a day that should be spent with family, or as close to family as you can get. Perhaps that’s why I planned this Friday’s Friendsgiving with new friends and old friends, because eclectic families are still families. Perhaps that’s why my mother continues to host a dinner that drains her every year - planning, cooking, entertaining like Gatsby - because family is what makes a holiday more than just a day. Perhaps the replacement of traditional family with friends this Thanksgiving isn’t a sacrifice though, simply an exchange: A subtle tradeoff for this New York adventure.