This year, I’m spending Thanksgiving in my parents’ front yard wearing a mask and a winter jacket. We’ll have an al fresco snack, and then my immediate family and I will trundle home for takeout. I haven’t seen my childhood bedroom since March.
In some ways, it’s nice: The burden is off. Normally, we host. Now, we can wear pajamas and watch TV. But it’s also sad. Our lives have been disrupted in so many ways, but this is the first major holiday where the disconnect has been so apparent. So I asked a renowned party planner, a psychologist, and an infectious disease expert (doesn’t this sound like a setup to a joke?) for strategies to make Thanksgiving mentally healthy, physically healthy, and even special.
Here are their ideas.
Make It Happier
AJ Williams, Boston party planner
Even though this Thanksgiving will be strange, it can also be a time for “deep sharing with people,” says Williams, through Zoom, selfies, more leisurely time with close family, and new traditions. “I think this Thanksgiving will be cherished,” she says.
Pull out a special wine. Remember that dusty bottle you were saving for your anniversary? Use it now.
Set a gorgeous table. Even if you’re eating in sweat pants, a pretty table will make things feel special. Place a boxed treat at each seat. Nothing fancy, but maybe lure in your kids with a snack they’ve coveted or a small gift. “This adds another element of surprise,” she says.
Cook virtually. Perhaps you can’t all crowd around Auntie Gertrude’s mashed potatoes. That’s OK. Consider cooking together anyway, on video, orchestrating a special dish to make in unison. Send an invitation with a specific time.
Crank the music. “Keep it upbeat and fun,” Williams says. Hey! This just might be your chance to finally blast Nine Inch Nails without offending Uncle Herb.
Make It Calmer
Dr. Anthony Rao, child psychologist and author
If you’re wrestling with how to tell Mom you’re not joining her 20-person, mask-free feast, take heart: This is your chance to model autonomy and empowerment for your kids.
Flex your grown-up muscle. “I think parents have a great opportunity here to show their kids some agency,” Rao says. You can demonstrate independent thinking and resilience, proving that holidays (or any event) are as happy as you make them out to be.
Part of this is standing firm if relatives try to pressure you into doing something you’re not comfortable with.
“It’s an opportunity for parents who need to practice some sense of their own agency to step up and do what they’ve decided makes the most sense for them and their families,” Rao says. “We’re so empathetic that we sacrifice ourselves for that and just bend.”
No more empathy at the expense of safety! But if mom’s voice still reduces your knees to mushy apple pie, consider: Rao suggests framing declines in the third person and ending on a positive, which makes it easier to hear the message.
Frame your pushback as, “A lot of families are going through this, and it’s hard on everyone. I know a lot of families who will celebrate later.”
You’re drawing a line with your family and also showing your kids how to think independently.
“It feels odd and weird, but you’ll feel the benefits later,” he says. Your nosy in-laws or touchy cousin might actually respect you more.
Embrace the relief. Maybe you’re secretly glad that you’re not schlepping onto a plane or cramming into your second cousin’s rec room. It’s OK to be quietly happy that this is a pared-down year. Rao says that embracing the positive is a way to position yourself as a learner, someone who is open to new experiences instead of dwelling in regret. This is a growth mind-set, which is the opposite of FOMO, negativity, and worry.
“You can either feel bad or embrace a new challenge and learn a whole new way to celebrate a holiday. Be open-minded, and maybe you’ll surprise yourself, and a new tradition will be afoot. Try it on and see how it feels,” he says.
Make It Healthier
Dr. Elissa Perkins, director of emergency department infectious disease management at Boston University School of Medicine/Boston Medical Center
Let’s be blunt: This holiday, known for gaping maws and communal platters, is best spent with your immediate pod.
“The safest thing you can do is stay in your bubble. There are ways to mitigate risk. Some are more effective than others,” she says.
Still, Perkins knows that some people are going to gather regardless. “There’s so much COVID fatigue. We’re exhausted. Humans are social. We’ve been asked to not be social for so long,” she says.
Quarantine for two weeks if planning close contact with new people. That means 14 days of not going outside your bubble, which is really tough and not foolproof. You may want to consider other options (see below).
Don’t count on testing. It’s widely thought that testing three to seven days after the last possible exposure is more accurate, but timing is a challenge. “We do not have the infrastructure to support pre-travel testing. I’m actually concerned that symptomatic testing, meaning testing for people who have symptoms in contact tracing, may be limited if everybody wants to go out and get a test before they see grandma,” Perkins warns. In other words: Resources are limited; use them wisely.
Reimagine your venue. “My recommendation here in the Northeast is to try to do it outside,” she says. It’s a long weekend, so pick the sunniest day out of the four and gather then. Wear a heavy jacket and make the best of it.
“The win is you’re able to see your family,” she says.
Scrap the idea of big Thanksgiving meals. “It’s not a safe expectation. When you eat your meal, your mask is off, you’re close. That is a setup for a super-spreader event,” she warns, particularly indoors. Eat outdoors in different spaces (at least 6 feet apart), even if it means trimming your menu a bit for a quicker dinner.
On the plus side, an outdoor, spaced gathering is low-risk. Is it perfect? Nope. But connectedness matters, too, however we can grab it.