Regardless of if you have somewhere to be or not, holidays are difficult.

The reason I attribute holiday time to sucking so much is because these “special” dates marked on the calendar just scream: “Hey! Remember me last year? Or the year before that? Were you happy? What’s different now? Do you think you’ll still be here next year?” And, if you’re a normal person, a lot changes in a year.

While there’s of course some sort of excitement (or anxiousness) in the air, the best these dates do is give you a lot to think about. Holidays mark tradition, and highlight the changes of your life up until this point. The memories they induce function like a nostalgic highlight reel, not so different from the effect of social media, though the evidence is entirely in your head. You may reflect on happy times that have passed, or the sad times that you managed to get through, but it always gives us the opportunity to compare ourselves to the versions we used to be, and would like to be but haven’t gotten there quite yet. 

They’re like that terrible ‘Time-Hop’ photo you told your friend to delete three years ago and—even though you’re untagged— it still resurfaces (every damn year), or like a Facebook friend request asking you to add your ex’s new fling (a.k.a. your replacement. Fun. Ouch. ), or a slap in the face by your doppelgänger-visiting Dickens ghost (past, present, future,— pick one, they all suck when the sun sets at 4 p.m.)

Maybe that’s why adults tell kids to never grow up. All the magic and wonder of these special times sort of gets sucked out of the air once you’ve experienced heartbreak and have bills to pay.

Thanksgiving was always my favorite holiday (following Halloween, of course, because dressing up as someone else and seeking out things that terrify you on purpose is always liberating.) My parent’s are divorced and a handful of my cousins’ families are either also broken or practicing different religions, so Thanksgiving is just about the only time of year that we’re fortunate enough to spend with everyone in this large Irish-Catholic guild. It’s a time for us to sweep normal familial pettiness under the rug for tradition sake, and the Jehovah Witnesses and the Catholics and the Millennials and the Baby Boomers and the Musicians and the Accountants all gather ‘round the living room fire with a couple of acoustic guitars while everyone pulls up the lyrics to David Bowie’s Changes for an end-of-the-night, digestion-inducing jam session.

This year’s Thanksgiving, however, was far from traditional. Kid’s stomach bugs, extended significant-other obligations, new lives in new states and expensive plane tickets, and the tender pain of embracing the reality of growing older, kept half of the family from physically being together. But cousins and uncles stepped up to assist aunts and Grandma in their usual preparations. And when we called the football fans into the kitchen for a pre-meal prayer, their speediness and promptness broke records. 

Change in tradition is most oftentimes looked at as disappointing. We are a culture of comparison, constantly being reminded of what once was coupled with a romantic longing for the good ol days (and when a hip cousin switches out an uncle’s annual cheese plate with a charcuterie board, fists go flying.)

As I reflect back on our last year, I can feel the sensation of a frightening string of experiences, recalling the too many hospital visits and inevitable reality of losing what we hold dear. The shared memories of loved ones nearly slipping away sparked a shared anxiety amongst the family this year. And yet, the evening somehow felt clearer than it ever had.

In spite of these seemingly small changes disclosing the weighted heaviness that loomed in the air all evening, (indicated by about a dozen pair of watery irises ready to overflow and dispel at the mere mention of dinner-time prayer), there was a beautiful, touching sense of togetherness that I may have never felt before at any Thanksgiving previous.

Though there were less faces and more leftovers, there was even more unencumbered love, which reminded me of something I tended to forget whenever I’m in my own head (generally flipping through torn photo albums with Yesterday softly spinning on in the background.) 

In the wake of something so horrible, so negative, and so isolating, there are these silver lining moments that bring us closer to people we love, to people we’ve grown apart from or don’t fully understand, or strangers we never really knew at all.

It’s a sentiment that can almost seems meaningless the more it’s pitched to us from several uninspired marketing campaigns, but it’s the real magic of the holidays. And that’s the part we should always hold dear.