[San Juan Silver Stage | November 2021 | Kathryn R. Burke]  

Thanksgiving 2021. Well, it will certainly look different this year, no matter what your views on restrictions regarding public and family gatherings. Because of Covid, most community meals and programs are cancelled. Many families fear the virus and won’t be doing a traditional Turkey Day—or if they do, it will be limited to close family members. Those who live alone may have to spend the day by themselves and, like residents in nursing homes and assisted living facilities, they are also at high risk of loneliness. Regardless of where we are, many will suffer from enforced loss of tradition. Thanksgiving is supposed to be a joyous time, celebrating abundance. This year…well, we just have to get creative when it comes to celebrating this, the only true American holiday.

When most people think about Thanksgiving, they focus on food, family and football-watching. But putting the “thanks” back into Thanksgiving is a good start in improving your heart health, researchers say. American Heart Association.

This holiday is a time we look forward to all year, when families gather and share a congenial communal meal while catching up on their news. While Christmas tends to be more about kids and is based on Christianity, Thanksgiving is more of a generational event. It’s an all-American,  non-religious holiday, an annual gathering shared by family members from great-grandparents to newborns. Thanksgiving is about family as well as food. It’s a celebration of abundance.

Traditionally, we often tend to overdo the abundance. We cook up a storm, eat too much, suffer through a messy cleanup (turkey and goose can be greasy!), and pack up a lot of leftovers to be turned into hot turkey sandwiches, scalloped turkey, then stew, then soup—Thanksgiving food can last for days. Even longer if you don’t have all those guests at the table who can take some of it home with them. Better start making room in the fridge and freezer now.

Thanksgiving is about being together. It’s a time and place of sharing dialogue, conversation, food, family, and (for some) football—all in the same place at the same time and within touching distance. “Pass the potatoes, please,” just doesn’t work when you share a picture of the spuds on your phone.

The first Thanksgiving football game was a college match between Yale and Princeton in 1876. Now there are three games every year.

Thanksgiving is also a big football day. Families and friends enjoy a meal together and watch NFL games as part of the day’s celebration. This year’s three games (noonish, late afternoon, and evening) leave plenty of time for a mid-game meal. It’s hard to do a “virtual” celebration, though, when (noisily) watching a ballgame. All that Zoomed cheering, booing, and armchair quarterbacking gets lost when you’re tuned in to each other and the “each others” are all tuned in to the game.

Did your great grandma go to her grandma’s house by sleigh for Thanksgiving? Paula Brown image.

Old-fashioned Thanksgiving brought back memories of older traditions, like when the family used to take the sleigh to Grandma’s house. Today, they can still go, even by sleigh in some areas, but they’re more likely to Zoom to the grandparents home, than ride with sleigh bells and singing.

With tradition thrown under the bus because of Covid, there is a plethora of ideas—some good, some bad, some just plain silly—out there. We took a look at the recommendations from the Center for Disease Control (CDC), along with suggestions in various news articles and other sources, on the best ways to celebrate your Turkey Day, and came up with our own list of pros, cons, observations, and comments.

In-person, family gatherings of people who live in your household. The good news is that you can avoid sharing a meal with people you don’t really like anyway. Food served meets family dietary requirements and consists of things you know they like to eat. Less food, lower cost, less cooking, fewer leftovers, less mess, shorter cleanup. However, less can also mean more work for you, especially if you use the good china, since you are now chief fixer and “cleaner-upper.” Small, limited gatherings also mean loss of tradition—with favorite foods and special table settings—and loss of camaraderie with extended family and friends. You also miss out on the joy of preparing a meal together. In our house, that meant drinking some of the wine that went into the stuffing before it went into the bird. Kitchen time was also family gossip time; the bigger the gathering, the more of us in the kitchen, the more before-dinner shared news. We had so much fun.

Virtual gathering. You don’t have to physically be together to “be together.” Get everybody hooked up simultaneously on their smartphones. Which could be challenging. Preparing and eating a big meal is a lengthy process. Filming it could take a while. How about Zooming it in pieces…with a little dialogue? “Here I am cooking—look at that mound of potatoes you don’t have to help peel.” “Here we are eating—aren’t you glad you don’t have to eat that green bean casserole?” “Watch me clean up—and you totally get out of scrubbing these pans.”

Try a totally different “themed” table. This one celebrates the movie diva’s of the 1930s and ’40s. We all dressed our parts. ©Kathryn R. Burke.

Maybe Zoom-in on each attendee’s table and hold a virtual conversation while you all eat at the same time, but in different locations. “Oooh, Aunt Susie got out the Waterford.” “Sara is using paper plates –but she’s still going to have to clean the pans!” ‘Course, you’re gonna preserve for posterity some less-than-pretty pictures: mouths open, gobbling food, bellies expanding, over-imbibing. But if you’re determined, better make sure your smartphone is charged up, camera working, and you’ve got good Internet reception. Lotta people will be online TG Day. You might get bounced off the air after that first messy bite of turkey.

Another big deal every year is/was watching the annual Macy’s Parade. Not too much different this year for most of us, unless we live in NY City. It’ll be Zoomed – about the same as it is every year when we watch it on TV. But this year no crowds, and it’ll be re-reruns instead of in-person oohing, ahhing, and cheering the fabulous floats.

Macy’s parade, downtown NYC, is a tradition dating back to 1924. Public Domain. No copyright infringement intended.

Go out to a restaurant rather than eating in. Certain local restaurants are offering holiday meals, some at specific, reserved seatings. This allows establishments to prevent at-the-door lines waiting for an empty table, sanitize between seatings, and make sure there is the right amount of food available. Some serve “family style” for each table or group, so you still get leftovers, but without having to cook the food or clean up afterward. It’s also a chance to dress up a little and have an outing with friends and family.

Cook and no-contact delivery. You cook it, package it, deliver it (without contact) to family or friends that can’t join in person (and probably can’t figure out how to Zoom, either). This is a good deed, because the recipient doesn’t have to cook or clean up. You also won’t have so many leftovers. But it’s a sad deed, too. The people you give food to can’t share conversation and a meal. “Togetherness” is an important part of Thanksgiving—giving thanks together. Of course, if they don’t like that corn relish or mincemeat pie and spit it out…you’ll never know. (You might try the method I’m using for meals with a friend in a nursing home—share through the window, each of us eating on one side of it; we don’t Zoom, we can physically see one another and view each other talking on speaker phone on our cell phones.) [Related story.]

Here we all are, cooking together. Betsy is learning how to slice vegetables without cutting off her finger!

Host a virtual pre-dinner prep time. And it doesn’t have to be all at once, or even all in one day. Share recipes with friends and family. Cook some things ahead, film the cooking and finished dish. (How about scalloped potatoes, roasted beets with feta and walnuts, or maybe your festive orange and cranberry relish.) This way you can share in the pre-dinner festivities without trying to film, eat, and talk all at the same time. Another plus: avoiding arguments. As dinner is often accompanied by adult beverages, conversation could get out of hand due to some acrimonious perspectives especially prevalent during this election year. If you Zoom the prep and sign out before you eat, harmony should (hopefully) prevail. Of course, everybody has the “best” way to cook a turkey, so you could get some unwanted directions.

Celebrate in a different way. Instead of a big meal—cook, eat, cleanup—why not share a family activity? Maybe have a family game time. Zoom and play charades, share pictures in the scrapbook, play “Do you remember?” Or even a board game like Monopoly, but where you move the opponents’ pieces to match their moves, and they do the same with yours. Thanksgiving doesn’t have to be about food, although you could also make this snack time while you’re doing games.

Bundle up, gather with family or a few friends, and have an outdoor Thanksgiving Picnic—in the backyard or at the park. Sharon Prince image.

Potluck picnic in the park. Weather permitting, gather with a few family members or friends, all of you practicing social distancing or mask-wearing. Check with everybody first to make sure they haven’t been recently exposed, so you will all feel safe getting together. Make the picnic be about seasonal food, but more transportable, like turkey sandwiches and foods that don’t need heating or refrigerating. Include some family favorites. Besides sharing food, maybe play horseshoes or some other outdoor game.

This is my table, decorated in a Native American theme, with centerpiece art on loan from the Ute Museum. ©Kathryn R. Burke.

Co-host a virtual Thankgiving Dinner Table contest. Participants go all-out to decorate their tables. (This works for Christmas dinner, too.) Get out the good stuff. Be creative. Do a “themed” table or color-coordinate the whole thing, even the food! Dress for the occasion. Take photos of the table, the meal, the guests at the table, and share the photos on social media. This is something families living far away from each other can do every year. Your friends can include their families. Take it viral! Just as our world haS gone through some extraordinary changes, you don’t have to fall into the old rut of: “This is how we always do it.” Instead, start a brand-new holiday tradition.

Bike ride (or hike) with a bunch. Again, weather permitting, gather a few friends and take a companionable bike ride or hike. Depending on current mandates, maybe go for pizza afterward.

Where there’s a will…there’s a way…to enjoy Thanksgiving Day. It just might look different, but who knows? Maybe you’ll start a new family tradition.