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Thanksgiving is Not Canceled: How to Celebrate During a Pandemic

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Creative Ideas and Tips for Holiday Celebrations

First we were going to take a trip. Then we weren’t. Then we were going to have a small Thanksgiving gathering. Then we weren’t. My family has logged so many hours talking about how to approach the holidays – during a pandemic like nothing seen in living memory – that we exceeded our cell phone data plan!

How to Celebrate Thanksgiving in the Face of Covid

And I don’t think my family is unique in this. On the eve of the kickoff holiday to our winter holiday relay (Thanksgiving-Christmas/Hanukah-New Year’s), many Americans find their brains spinning with questions: How do you celebrate Thanksgiving during the Coronavirus pandemic? How do you connect with loved ones while physically distancing and/or isolating? Am I being overly cautious and fearful? Am I being careless, reckless and jeopardizing the health of my loved ones by flouting public health recommendations? Can my heart survive the disappointment of canceling various social engagements?

Should I Have a Thanksgiving Party?

If you’re reading this to find out whether you should or shouldn’t host (or go to) your traditional, beloved holiday gatherings, you’ll be disappointed. I don’t have a recommendation for you. Hell, I don’t have one for myself. That choice is yours based on virus transmission in your area and the areas your guests are coming from, as well as your county public health recommendations, state mandates and health risk factors of the people in your family.

But, it’s important to remember that you aren’t just interacting with your family, you’re interacting with everyone they have interacted with, and so on. We had a loved one admitted and discharged from the hospital twice last week for Covid-related symptoms. He was already three weeks into a battle with Covid-19 that he caught at a small social gathering and subsequently spread the next day during a small social gathering.

If you decide to participate in an in-person holiday party, it’s worthwhile to have clear, honest communication with all the guests before you get together. Essentially: perform your own reverse contact tracing. For every guest, consider asking questions like:
• Who will you be interacting with in the ten days before you get together? (and am I comfortable with those risks?)
• Are you willing to cut out any of those risks to make it possible to have a gathering? (For example, don’t go to bars for ten days prior
• What are your individual health vulnerabilities for catching Coronavirus? This covers your health but also other factors in your life. For example, having my kids attend in-person school is a high priority to me, so I need to evaluate if I’m willing to expose them to multiple sources of out-of-area germs and risk being responsible for yet another school shutdown. I’m also not covered by any financial protections, such as sick days or paid time off for Covid care. If I’m not working, I’m not not earning.

If You Stay Home for Thanksgiving…

Personally, I’m getting a little sick of the whining and memes about “canceling” Thanksgiving (or other holidays). Not because I don’t feel sadness, disappointment, frustration, homesickness and anger at the whole Covid Situation. Believe me, I feel it. Painfully. My body physically aches for the people I want to hug who I only see at holiday gatherings. Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday of the year! Like Pavlov’s dog, I can trigger drooling by just thinking about the Thanksgiving foods I love. I hurt, just like you, at the loss of my traditional Thanksgiving activities.

Have you heard the Napoleon Hill quote “Our only limitations are those we set up in our own minds”? Is our concept of a holiday celebration so limited that it only fits in one mold? And if you take that external expression of the holiday away, it completely disappears or it’s “canceled”? Is there really only one way to connect with loved ones, honor a holiday or enjoy a cheery, festive feeling inside?

For me: Hell, no.

If you’re struggling to find non-traditional ways to celebrate and connect this Thanksgiving, here are some ideas.

Creative Ideas for Safe Holiday Socializing

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Schedule a video GROUP celebration. Facebook video, cell phone video calls and video conferencing services like Skype, Zoom and Google Hangouts are all good options as long as they can accommodate your large guest list. We had a Zoom family celebration for Easter, and we kind of just stared at each other and then all talked at once. It was awkward and unsatisfying. But, like everything in the pandemic, we’re getting better at handling our new circumstances with more skill! Give your video celebration some structure to “break the ice” as well as encouraging interactive participation. Asking everyone to share their favorite Thanksgiving memory or take turns saying one thing they’re grateful for can often loosen tongues and lead to fun, memory-exchanging conversations. You might assign guests roles, such as one person do a blessing or a prayer or have the kids perform (a song or short show) for the group. You could tell everyone to come with their drink and have each person offer a toast for someone else or the group.

Online Social Games. Kids and teens who are comfortable with technology but not so comfortable with the kind of socially structured conversations of phone and video calls might enjoy a chance to just play with each other. Without any risk of spreading the virus. Social gaming can be a good option. One I’ve recently discovered is Mozilla Hubs, which is great for a scheduled online party or playdate. Tech comfortable kids (and some adults) can explore a 3-D environment, from ordinary rooms to island castles. They can create personas, create objects and manipulate their environment. Of course, it is a video conferencing program, so they can stand and have a face-to-face conversation if they want, but they’d probably prefer to run around playing tag and hide-and-seek – just like they would at a traditional family get-together. (Mozilla Hubs is also an option for an online party. It’s not nearly as businesslike and stuffy as video conferencing like Zoom, but it’s significantly more difficult to use and can be frustrating for the technologically-disabled like me.)

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Thanksgiving Crafts (with the people in your household). Crafts are great for kids, but adults tend to forget how fun it is to paint and glue and glitter! These kinds of activities encourage mindfulness (mental centering) as well as creativity. And the projects make wonderful, meaningful gifts to send to loved ones you can’t see in person.

Other Creative Activities. Write poems or stories or make little “books” to send to loved ones. (Adults, I’m talking to you too.) These can be humorous, or poignant and meaningful. WARNING: SELF-PROMOTION. I’m offering numerous online creative writing activities and classes for kids and teens (ages 6 to 18). In some, we’ll make poems and stories kids can present at holiday gatherings (in-person or online). Others offer an opportunity to process our convoluted feelings about pandemic life. Yet others are just a fun way for little kids to engage when schools are closed (and give parents a break without relying on a TV show).

Have Meaningful Conversations. How many times have you left a big celebration and realized you forgot to talk to someone you probably won’t see for another year? How much time do you spend at social gatherings talking about absolutely nothing – and probably feeling really awkward and geeky while doing it? Meaningful conversations don’t often happen while shouting across a noisy table about the weather. Make this a year of connecting – by phone, email or mail – directly, personally and meaningfully.

Call a different relative every day this week and have a real conversation with just them. Dig through old photos for forgotten images to send or text them to the people in the pictures. Remember how much hairspray we used to hold our hair straight up? Oh, god, look at my braces!

Put the “Thanks” Back in Thanksgiving

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Buy a box of “thank you” notes and make it a goal to write and send every card. Take this opportunity to thank anyone and everyone you appreciate in your life, from your mail carrier to your school superintendent to your doting grandparents. Most of us work hard in our jobs and lives, giving of ourselves every day and receiving very little recognition. Let’s change that!

Gratitude lists. If you’re not familiar with a gratitude list: it’s just what it sounds like. List out everything you’re grateful for. I mean everything. Nothing is too small. Be grateful you got the roof fixed before winter. Be grateful that Pumpkin Spice Latte is back. Yeah, it sucks that you’re not having all your favorite people over for the holiday, but you can be thankful that you don’t have to clean the house! No matter how gloomy or miserable we’re feeling, there are always things to be grateful for. At a holiday whose premise is gratitude, at a time when reduced socializing encourages introspection, it’s a nice opportunity to acknowledge and appreciate your blessings.

Put the “Giving” Back in Thanksgiving

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Be a Turkey Claus, Flower Fairy or Cookie Bunny. I can’t take credit for this great idea – it’s my brother-in-law, who has chosen it for his Thanksgiving celebration this year. He is smoking turkeys for loved ones, then delivering them to doorsteps in lieu of in-person get-togethers. If your loved ones live nearby, you can do this with flower bouquets, plates of cookies or pumpkin pies. You can do it secretly and pretend to be dumbfounded when you’re questioned about it. Or make it a big spectacle and decorate your car like a turkey and write cheerful greetings on your windows for other drivers. Remember, the act of giving is the celebration.

Donations. Like individuals and businesses, charity organizations are also reeling from the economic upheaval of the pandemic. If you have the means, donate to an organization whose mission is meaningful to you, but remember this is how you’re symbolically honoring the holiday. So don’t just scribble out a check. Do it with intention. If you have kids, you can have a fun parade to the mailbox and deliver an invocation like it’s a ship setting off on a long voyage: “I send you out in the world with my blessing to help others who are struggling.”

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If you’re not financially positioned to make a monetary donation, consider donating your time. Deliver groceries to homebound people, pick up trash at a park, do yard work for a neighbor with physical disabilities. The options are as endless as they are meaningful!

Check in With the Most Vulnerable. This is often relatives, neighbors or friends who are elderly or have emotional or physical disabilities. For them, the pandemic has probably compounded problems they were already facing: fragile health and social isolation. Call, email or leave a note on their door. They may need material help (like running errands or walking their dog), but most likely they need comfort, closeness, reassurance and social connection. Don’t underestimate the value of reaching out to someone who feels lost, even when all you have to offer is a joke or silly story.

That’s the Holiday Spirit

If you offer both thanks and giving in all that you do, you are honoring the spirit of Thanksgiving.

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As we’ve collectively (yet separately) stressed and panicked and lost relatives, friends and lifestyles to Covid this year, most of us have developed a renewed appreciation for the fragility of life and transience of our circumstances. Even as we’ve fought with others – sometimes venomously – over political differences, Covid has been a great unifier and equalizer. If you love someone, appreciate someone, have a special memory of someone: tell them. Now.

Above all else, treasure your loved ones. Treasure them enough to let them know how much they mean to you. Treasure them enough to not unwittingly impose a health and financial hardship on them they may not be able to overcome.

Yes, we’ll survive a shuttered, distanced Thanksgiving. The same can’t be said of a potentially fatal virus. Find heart in the fact that no one ever died from a lack of pumpkin pie. But, whether or not we enjoy this Thanksgiving or grow from it or find value in what this unique year offers us…that’s our choice.

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