Is There Anything Stranger than Going Home for the Holidays?

updated May 24, 2019
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(Image credit: Sadie Trombetta)

Going home for the holidays is like going to the Upside Down, back in time to when the world still felt strange and new. Welcome to Stranger Thanksgiving, inspired by Netflix’s hit Stranger Things and the Thanksgivings of our childhoods.

My mother, a hard-working mom of three, believes in one thing over all else: family. She always expected her kids to show up at the dinner table; to her, every Sunday was an occasion to get together around a meal.

But holidays were The Real Deal, especially Thanksgiving, a single-day holiday that she somehow made last all week. We’d prep pies and desserts, brine the turkey, and clean the house from top to bottom.

On Thanksgiving morning, we’d gather around the kitchen TV to watch the Macy’s Day Parade while we got cooking. By two o’clock, the house would be filled food and sweater-wearing friends and family.

To me, it was a perfect holiday, full of fun and comfort and safety; the kind of feeling that only warm, familiar food cooked by someone you love can give you. And it was never more perfect than on November 25, 1999, the day I have framed in my mind as the holiday to compare all other holidays to.

* * *

The kids’ table was a miniature duplicate of the one for the grown-ups. It was covered in a deep-red tablecloth and set with white plates and stemmed glasses, only everything was plastic, instead of china or glass.

The buffet was lined with all of the family favorites: carved turkey with canned cranberry sauce and brown-butter gravy; a pineapple and cherry glazed ham; and whipped potatoes with garlic and tons of cheese, peas, and bacon bits. There was boxed stuffing and the homemade stuff, and a basket of deep-fried fruit fritters.

I waited in line, twirling my plaid skirt and pulling at my tights, until it was my turn to fork piles of food onto my plate. Every year, I hoped and wished I could have one of the turkey legs, but I was always “too slow and too small” to get my hands on it.

But that year, when I reached the buffet table, there I saw it: a turkey leg as big as my forearm, skin crisp, meat juicy, nestled there among the boring white meat and ripe for the taking. After I finished every last bite, which I did to spite not only my stomach but also my family’s doubt, I rolled myself away from the table until it was time for dessert.

My mom smiled and laughed when I asked for more pie. My dad rolled his eyes as my sisters stood by my sides with empty plates waiting for their helping, too. We spent the rest of the night playing board games and begging for just one more treat, until we were too full for even one more bite.

* * *

When I went off to college, I began my own traditions. My Misfits Thanksgiving was a gathering of anyone left over on campus who needed a place to eat turkey. We’d sit around on mismatched couches, our paper plates piled high with a collection of our various family favorites, playing games, drinking beers, and making our own memories.

When I graduated and moved away from home, this new tradition stuck. The old one stayed frozen in time, a perfect memory of the most perfect day of the year.

Last year, though, I got in my car and drove to my childhood home to break bread and turkey legs with my family once again. I knew it wouldn’t be exactly the same, but still, I expected to be washed in familiarity and some old-fashioned holiday magic.

What I got was a feeling that was familiar, but also eerie. It was like something, maybe everything, was off. It was the same home (the burn mark from my 13th birthday candle was still on the rug), the same family (my dad still spoke exclusively, lovingly, in expletives), and the same food (I could smell the fritters frying from outside). But it wasn’t the same feeling: Did something change here without my notice, or was I the one who was different?

* * *

I find myself asking that question a lot lately, when I look around at a country I don’t recognize and a political climate that seems so strange, so unfamiliar, it has me questioning whether it’s even real. But when I stop and really think about it, I realize something I realized when I walked into my parent’s house last Thanksgiving: It is still the same dysfunctional family it’s always been. We’re just seeing it from a new point of view. And, after seeing the world from another side entirely, returning home doesn’t feel so comforting anymore.

These feelings, I realized, were a lot like watching Netflix’s Stranger Things. A tribute to the 1980s, the series recalls the days of Poltergeist and The Breakfast Club, Toto and The Clash, mom’s meatloaf and Eggo waffles. Whether you were a kid yourself in the 80s or one who, like me, grew up watching, reading, and listening to everything the decade before you had to offer, the series pulls at a certain part of your heart; the part where memories of your childhood live.

At the same time, it’s a bizarre viewing experience, and not just for its science fiction aspects. The show has the ability to suck you back into another time and place; one that’s so familiar you can almost imagine yourself there again.

But you don’t fit at the kid’s table anymore and you don’t really belong. It’s like Will, looking at himself in his bathroom mirror, seeing the same face he’s always seen one moment, and someone else’s entirely the next. Your whole world feels upside down.