November 24, 2020
Who would have thought the two main tenants of the American Thanksgiving holiday – traveling to see family and gathering inside for a traditional turkey meal – would become so divisively political and possibly dangerous…
Yet that’s exactly where we are right now. Many have canceled plans altogether or modified to celebrate Thursday with a smaller-than-usual group.
Here in Baltimore, Governor Larry Hogan announced he’ll be staying home alone with his wife for the holiday, instead of their usual family gathering with his daughters and grandsons.
What about you, dear reader? Are you changing your Thanksgiving Day plans this year because of COVID? E-mail us at [email protected] and fill us in.
Today, we’re sharing American Consequences contributing writer Alice Lloyd’s fantastic essay about just how different Turkey Day will be this year…
We gather together to ask…that we actually not gather, after all. Maybe next year!
My father doesn’t like Thanksgiving.
I’ve never really understood why… He’s generally a pleasant enough person who enjoys the presence of his family. Or at least he’s managed to convince us that he does. He likes pie and loves America.
He is among the majority who stoically tolerate staple holiday dishes – the mandatory cranberry sauce, even the turkey itself – that they secretly can’t stand: 68% of respondents to a survey conducted by the Harris Poll last year confessed that there is at least one Thanksgiving dish they hate but dutifully eat anyway. (The tradition of choking down a lovingly homemade meal every year in a battle against your tastebuds strikes me as the all-American height of good-humored domesticity, but hey what do I know?)
And, come to think of it, cranberry’s not the crux of the problem. Dad has a go-to gripe about Thanksgiving’s status as a “made-up holiday.” Which I think – though I’ve never asked – has something to do with the cartoonish goofiness of the Mayflower myth… A three-day feast in the fall of 1621 that was host, according to one attendee who took notes, to 90 Wampanoag natives and 53 Pilgrims does not easily equate to the genesis of America as we know it.
From the perspective of someone who’s spent his whole life in New England, this fatigue sort of makes sense. And, as far as patriotic feast days go, Memorial Day and the Fourth of July are more meaningful commemorations of the glory and sacrifice, the classic united-independence paradox that makes our mighty nation the indomitable mob that we are and will remain.
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Meanwhile, Thanksgiving commemorates a pretty much “madeup” version of what a few dozen guys with silly hats and overbearing beliefs may or may not have eaten at some point after their boat landed, in an historically-questionable comity with the native people they met… far from the first Europeans this tribe had encountered. So maybe my dad – and I’m probably only saying this because I haven’t seen him in several months – has a point…
And yet even so, when COVID-19 closed the world back in March, the silver lining this committed Thanksgiving-disliker came up with to boost our far-flung family’s flagging spirits was an uncharacteristic note of gratitude: that at least Thanksgiving wasn’t canceled.
He reasoned it was a blessing of sorts that quarantine caught us on the cusp of spring, when the days were getting longer and the weather more amenable to masked walks around the neighborhood and, eventually, to afternoons reading on the hammock in the sun. That it caught us on the cusp of spring instead of hitting us, well, now and disrupting what he had always claimed as his least favorite tradition. “Just imagine,” he’d said, “if this were all happening in November, when the only bright spots on the calendar were events requiring us to gather together indoors!”
Where I come from, intrafamilial exhortations to look on the bright side must be in want of sarcastic comebacks. But it was a scary, lonely, uncertain time, so we took a moment and dutifully contemplated the relative upside of canceling any season other than the one that’s jam-packed with most people’s favorite homecoming holidays. Never pausing to guess, of course, that in time those too would be called off.
And here we are, nine months later… It’s still a scary, lonely, uncertain time. The only difference is that it’s worse. It’s colder and darker out. COVID-19 cases are rising in midwestern states and failing to subside fully in former peak-crisis regions. Half the country is gnashing their teeth about the election while the other half, let’s face it, is gnashing theirs right back. And the only bright spots on the calendar, to borrow a phrase, are a slew of family festivities that will have to be conducted via Zoom – what we were once foolish enough to give thanks for not having to do – the artificial awkwardness of which now looms in the ever-nearer future…
In a normal year, this is the pre-Thanksgiving stretch of days when the veteran hosts and hostesses among us carefully confirm headcounts and double-check which weird cousins are vegan or paleo – when the cheerful overwhelm of Christmas being closer than it seems sets in, and with it all the gifts left to buy and cards unsent. There’s a nip in the air, leaves crunching underfoot, maybe the first snow in the forecast, a candle in the window and on the other side a warm kitchen rich with those wafting Thanksgiving smells: clove, cinnamon, whatever “mince” is… Except, of course, not this year.
Headcounts are coming up short, and family traditions that have run uninterrupted for generations are on hiatus – out of concern for the health of our more vulnerable loved ones, and, for the more civic-minded, in keeping with the kibosh on interstate travel. Grateful for our health, and thinking of those we’ve lost, Americans are following the CDC’s guidance and staying home – or else they’re already several days into a pre-travel quarantine.
It’s not easy to turn down invitations, in the interest of our relatives’ health. I keep thinking about a Hill staffer I met last week standing in line for a COVID-19 test. She’d spent what felt like hours on the phone with her somewhat senile grandmother in recent days, patiently explaining that, yes, she missed her and, yes, she wished she could visit for Thanksgiving – but that the family had decided not to gather for a reason, that the risk was too great, and that it simply wouldn’t be safe. (I happen to have eavesdropped on a portion of one such call shortly before we met… It was heartbreaking.)
We all know the statistics… the 10 million cases and counting, the national death toll approaching a quarter of a million Americans. And we know intuitively, if not from firsthand experience, that for every COVID-19 death there are countless more lonely men and women aching to reunite with family and friends they can’t safely see yet. Plus, COVID-19 makes the customary extended big-group gathering not just an unconscionable health hazard, but also a punishable crime for those who’d customarily make an interstate trek. (Not very many, but some travelers have been fined for breaking quarantine rules.)
The annual crop of hulking 40-pound mega-turkeys is getting a reprieve this year, with smaller turkeys in higher demand. But the rest of us are out of luck – even my father who, while he professes not to like Thanksgiving, likes loneliness even less.
In the spirit of silver linings, however, spending the holiday at home – and joining the extended family over Zoom – doesn’t have to be so bad. In fact, it has its own improbable upsides we may not all have taken the time to consider. For one thing, gathering your family via livestream on Thanksgiving means you can eat whatever you want – and not eat whatever you don’t want. It means you don’t have to wear a belt. It means you can mute the audio on the entire clan, if you so choose, at the moment that the subject of the presidential election arises.
As most of us know by now, virtual events – especially of the fun-for-the-whole-family variety – are nearly impossible to execute well. Nearly impossible, but not completely. According to the good folks at Country Living, sending invitations and creating a consistent “vision” or “visual concept” is key to tricking your scattered attendees into feeling as though they’re in the same place. You might think seeing the familiar faces of your family and friends lined up on your screen should accomplish the intended effect. But a little planning ahead could make the whole thing much more bearable…
If everyone on the Thanksgiving Zoom received a package in the week leading up to the holiday, for instance, containing a candle and a table cloth or a placemat and centerpiece – or, in the true spirit of forced family fun, a set of instructions and materials to make your own centerpiece – you’d end up with a “visual concept” that transcends the screen. (And, in all likelihood, it would end up a precious keepsake that you’ll spend years guiltily debating whether to throw out or save for posterity so that they can then feel bad about not really wanting it either.)
But if it’s too late or too much hassle to send care packages to everyone on the virtual guest list, prompting people to pony up their own candles shortly before the event begins is just as good. It would add a certain sacramental edge to the occasion to ask your Zoomers to light their candles in solemn unison. In general, anything that guests can do “together” despite their distance helps give your virtual Thanksgiving a sense of structure and ritual. Manufacturing some sense of ritual is the key ingredient.
Otherwise, not everyone needs to have the same menu. (Remember, polling – America’s favorite foolproof science – tells us that most people dislike at least one staple Thanksgiving dish.) But every household can probably agree to prepare one recipe in common. If it’s traditional for two relatives to prep a certain dish together, they might have a separate Zoom session exclusively for simultaneous cooking and kitchen chitchat.
If you keep your virtual Thanksgiving “gathering” judiciously short, you might humor those predisposed to replicate the experience of hourslong inert togetherness by all agreeing to watch The National Dog Show alone in your respective household pods. It runs – and trots, and heels, and stands still with its nose poised haughtily aloft – from noon to 2 p.m., eastern time. You can keep in touch via text, pick your favorite breeds and place high-stakes bets so that you have something more important than politics to bicker about as the meal begins. A simple scavenger hunt might do well to occupy the younger set: Ask every kid to scamper outside and find a bright yellow leaf… then, hurry and look for a red one! If the party skews older, consider a scavenger hunt with family photos and other memorabilia – or, if you’re really at a loss, perhaps a round of Trivial Pursuit: The Drinking Game.
As with any event, it’s important to designate a master of ceremonies, host, or moderator – although I believe “matriarch” is the traditional term – whoever knows the most people in attendance well enough to draw them out or quiet them down, as needed. Timing, too, is crucial. More so than at a live family gathering, where stragglers reliably roll in late and groups splinter off as the day winds down into evening. A couple kids might be lying on the floor with the dog while another two wander off on a lantern-lit walk to hear ghost stories from that one spooky aunt, leaving all the uncles to doze in front of the big football game. But there’s really no room for the long lingering goodbye within a group Zoom call. At this point, we’ve all seen it attempted, and we know we’ll never see it succeed.
One convenient wind-down method could be to keep onscreen whoever’s doing dishes – provided the screen’s perched at a safe distance from the dishwater – to replicate the competitive spirit of jockeying for helpfulness points. (It’s a tradition in some families, I swear!) And since it’s bound to be a smaller-than-usual gathering, the dishes won’t take very long at all even if you’re only pretending to do them together. Lingering after a holiday meal is a natural impulse… It’s a way to stave off goodbye and savor every second until the achy moment when you dry the last serving dish, close the laptop, and turn around to face the first of many such gloomy twilights in what’s poised to be our nation’s loneliest winter on record.
All of which – both the industrious inclination to tidy up right away, and the long cold winter and generally uncertain future that lie in store for all of us – remind me of my dad’s enduring issue with the Thanksgiving myth: What even is Thanksgiving, really? It had long been celebrated almost exclusively in New England on various dates in the fall and winter to commemorate that famous three-day feast. (For comparison, the world’s longest Zoom call was only 23 hours and 39 minutes.)
When Abraham Lincoln made it a national holiday nearly two and half centuries later, it was partly at the behest of writer Sarah Josepha Hale, who’d made the same request of his four predecessors in the office. But it was more so in honor of the Union victory at Gettysburg that Lincoln designated November 26, 1863 the first national Thanksgiving. And, this year, when anxieties about the dawn of a second Civil War are only just beginning to dissipate in the aftermath of a tense election, it happens to fall on the same day: November 26.
The controversial colonial circumstances of the first Thanksgiving make its straightforward, historical celebration less than kosher in 2020. But it’s not hard, from where we are now, to see how Lincoln’s canonization of Thanksgiving made for good wartime politics. Gathering our frayed attention around the sentimental image of flinty settlers feasting after a long, perilous journey, and before an even longer (and perhaps no less perilous) winter in a strange new land where the future held nothing but mystery – if it’s not outright inspiring, at least it’s more relatable all of sudden than in years past. It’s the sort of myth that, regardless of history, gains meaning depending on its spiritual resonance with the challenges of our present reality.
I’m lifting this, by the way, from a book of popular history I once gave my dad for Christmas, and which he then immediately gave back to me because he’d already read it: A Voyage Long and Strange by Tony Horwitz. It opens with a disappointing trip to Plymouth Rock and the author’s motivating admission that he, like so many of us, knows next to nothing about the American continent’s pre-Mayflower European settlers. (Read the book if you’re curious!) The journey that follows functionally supports my dad’s dismissal of Thanksgiving as a “made-up” holiday.
But the book’s closing scenes go along better with his acknowledgement that this time of year, and this year especially, we just need a reason to gather together – albeit only via screen for now. Horwitz returns to Plymouth, where he meets a mixed-race Baptist minister participating in a reenactment. The minister elegantly refutes Horwitz’s whole premise with one simple point – namely, that “Myth is more important than history.” Myth and history agree on one key point in the case of the Mayflower pilgrims: They made it through the winter that followed.
And so, here’s hoping will we, too…
Alice Lloyd is a writer and reporter in Washington, D.C., covering culture, politics, and the weirdness in between. Her work has been featured in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Boston Globe, and the Weekly Standard.
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November 24, 2020