A friend asked on Facebook: “Anyone else thrilled to cancel Thanksgiving, thanks to COVID? It’s the most physically exhausting, emotionally draining, politically fractious, whiplash-scheduled holiday, not to mention driving through the deer-infested dark in blizzard conditions to eat the blandest food in America. Stay home. Eat ribs and pulled pork. Watch Netflix. Argue with no one. That’s our plan. What’s yours?”

Within a day there were 111 reactions and 103 comments. She struck a nerve. It’s hard to know the right thing to do about Thanksgiving this year, hard to know if loving your family means joining them or staying away from them.

We’ve accepted an invitation to be with extended family members across the state. I am not an anti-mask, COVID-is-a-hoax guy. It’s just that my 89-year-old father lives in a retirement home five minutes from where we’ll gather. I have not physically seen him since the pandemic began.

Are we tempting fate by meeting in a house over a meal? I’m sure a lot of people see it that way. Yet the isolation brought on by the pandemic has been really tough on him. We’re taking the risk and going.

On the other end of the spectrum, a nephew and his wife had triplets during the pandemic and we’d love to meet the babies. But their parents are going to stay home. I get it. It’s too cold to sit outside, you can’t eat with a mask on, and there’s not enough space to be six feet apart all day.

You may add “traditional family Thanksgiving gatherings” to the list of things messed up by the pandemic. And, if your family has lost a loved one to the pandemic, their empty seat at Thanksgiving shines a brighter light on that loss. It sucks.

Do you find solidarity with my friend’s Thanksgiving-is-physically-exhausting sentiment? There are hours and hours of prep work for 20 minutes of eating. Women bear the brunt of this because we tend to revert to traditional gender roles on holidays. Meanwhile, husbands and brothers hope no one notices while they loosen their belts and nod off after dinner.

What do you make of my friend’s Thanksgiving meal bashing? It is odd that this meal is not something we normally eat. If we really like it so much why don’t we have it more often? It’s a mixed message: Turkey with stuffing and mashed potatoes and gravy is so good we only have it once a year. Not to mention green Jell-O with marshmallows and carrots floating in it. Yet I love a slice of healthy turkey meat smothered in artery-clogging gravy, with a big side dish of green bean casserole and some pumpkin pie adorned with a small tower of whipped cream.

And who knows if the vote counting and recounting and attendant lawsuits of our recent presidential election will be settled by Thanksgiving. Will we all be ready to accept who will be president? I am as conflict avoidant as anyone, and cringe at the thought of engaging in political conversation with relatives who voted for the other side. What can be gained at this point?

We place expectations on holidays they cannot possibly meet. We imagine bountiful and warm family scenes painted by Norman Rockwell yet wind up across the table from the same relatives we’ve always had. Someone is sure to say something about all lives mattering. Someone will point out that scientists used to think the world was flat, so they sure don’t know much about viruses, do they?

There’s bound to be a cousin who doesn’t say much and eats and leaves early just like he always does. What’s up with him? It is funny that families can talk all day about politics and the pandemic, but can’t talk about what’s really going on with each other. Families can be weird that way.

Beyond just our family world, as an ordained minister, I am really glad I am not preaching a Thanksgiving sermon anyplace this year. I feel sorry for those of you who are charged with that task. What could a 2020 Thanksgiving sermon be about? Thankful that we only have a month to go?

Not to sound too snooty, but my problem with the relationship between the church and this holiday transcends this cursed year. Thanksgiving is one of the high holy days of American civil religion. Why are we compelled even to have church on a state holiday? We take a day to overeat and then rest a few hours to recharge before starting the consumption-fest we’ve turned Christmas into.

And yet . . . I can’t give up on Thanksgiving. Our deepest ties and most powerful longings involve our families. There’s something sacred about family rituals. Pausing and being together is so important. It is endlessly great to eat a good meal together. It’s easy to bash Thanksgiving, but something is lost when we cut ourselves off from these times. We ignore them at our own peril.

I understand but don’t totally agree with my friend’s joy about staying home. Ribs and pulled pork and Netflix is tempting. Yet something about that plan feels like it is less than it should be. I’m uneasy, but we are going to take the risk and go join others in our family.

What are you going to do?

Jeff Munroe

Jeff Munroe is a retired minister in the Reformed Church in America. He resides in Holland, Michigan.

11 Comments

  • Daniel J Meeter says:

    Days of thanksgiving and days of fasting were both anticipated in the Dutch Reformed Liturgy long before the American Thanksgiving came about. Might be a good day to fast and pray. No sermons needed. That would be a wonderful celebration.

  • mstair says:

    “Do you find solidarity with my friend’s Thanksgiving-is-physically-exhausting sentiment?”

    Took me to Leviticus 23:

    2 “Speak to the people of Israel and say to them, These are the appointed feasts of the Lord that you shall proclaim as holy convocations; they are my appointed feasts.”

    … now there’s some exhausting feast descriptions…so this year’s “COVID Thanksgiving sabbath” might provide opportunity to give thanks for Grace…

    Feast Safely…

  • Jan Hoffman says:

    My favorite time of leading worship was the Wednesday evening before Thanksgiving, when we would sing the Psalms of praise and lament, and the evening hymns, in dimmed light, as congregants led the prayers. That doesn’t happen at the church I attend now.
    This year three of us will go to the nature preserve with a picnic and give thanks among the birds and gators by the ocean, FaceTime later with the kids whom we haven’t seen in 11 months.
    Thanksgiving dinner is served every week at summer camp. A tradition. Funny what our expectations are . . .

  • Tom says:

    Your Facebook Friend presents a different argument than you. Your concern is COVID, avoiding it’s spread, and weighing the benefit of relieving some of your father’s isolation vs. the risk of spreading COVID. Your friend makes no mention of COVID, just the emotional exhaustion of dealing with people you don’t like. My view is that you don’t HAVE to argue about politics at Thanksgiving. If you can’t find something besides politics to talk about with your family, then maybe there are enough issues in your family that you should stay away.

    You can instead discuss a topic we can all agree on, that being how badly the Detroit Lions, UofM Wolverines, and MSU Spartans stink at football.

    • Jeff Carpenter says:

      Throw in the Chicago Bears for stinky football, from my side of our lovely Lake Michigan. Thanksgiving has always been my side-of-the-family’s favorite holiday, as early on my siblings and I convinced our spouses to always celebrate the day/weekend with the Carpenters, and then leave Christmas to the in-laws-side. Great compromise; travel included road trips to Philadelphia and Baltimore/DC, lately circling back to just Chicago and West Mich. as extended families have multiplied. We all too mourn the loss of tradition out of concern for COVID spread; we are, though, thinking and anticipating what new and meaningful experience in observation of the Day can emerge. Strength for today, bright hopes for tomorrow, right?

  • Rowland Van Es, Jr. says:

    In Five Smooth Stones for Pastoral Work, Eugene Peterson notes that the book of Ecclesiastes was the assigned reading for the feast of Tabernacles. “The most negative of the scrolls was required reading at the most positive of the festivals.” Perhaps we should all gather and read Ecclesiastes: All is vanity, but there is still time for every activity under heaven. “All our our days we eat in darkness, with great frustration, affliction and anger” (5:17). “Then I realized that it is good and proper for a man to eat and drink, and to find satisfaction in his toilsome labor under the sun during the few days of life God has given him–for this is his lot.” (5:18). See 5:19-20 for further reflections by the cranky preacher that was Qoheleth, a man for our times.

  • Jon Lunderberg says:

    Jeff, thank you for getting us all to think about Thanksgiving and laugh. We have been blessed and should be thankful. My hope is that the two 47,000 BTU patio heaters I ordered in August and again in October will arrive before Thanksgiving. My goal is to have small, socially distanced outdoor Thanksgiving gathering in the driveway. We are all making decisions about quality of life and risk. My decision is to minimize the risk and I hope others can do the same.

  • John Kleinheksel says:

    Love your honest sharing Jeff. Honoring national/family traditions. Being wary of Covid contagion.
    We haven’t even decided what we will do as “family” yet, for T-giving. Virtual?
    BTW, thanks for yesterday, with Mark, at CMC. Pure enjoyment. Fred Buechner. Yes!
    Things are different this year, for sure. And who knows what the future will hold, given the choices we will be making today and tomorrow?
    (The media still enthralled with our adolescent chief executive; a case of arrested development. Imagine, never having experienced being a “loser.”
    Sad. Really sad. We all have to hope the man will grow up some day. . . .)

  • Helen P says:

    I am faced with the possibility of being alone on Thanksgiving this year partly due to my wish of minimizing risk to others and partly because of my own risk aversion.
    That said, I fully intend to make my own Thanksgiving dinner with all the fixings, though I will have fewer side-dishes. It has always been my favorite holiday, though without family around it obviously won’t be the same…and I’m prepared to feel a little sadness.
    But – I can still give thanks for the blessings in my family. Yes, it has been a really tough year, but we’re all alive and thus far no one has died of COVID. We have been very fortunate.
    I can give thanks that I have a good job, and a faith family. I can give thanks for the roof over my head and a warm place to be that day.
    …and I can ask for blessings on everyone for the year ahead in hopes that next Thanksgiving my family and other families can once more gather together.

  • Jan Hoffman says:

    From yesterday’s NYTimes coronavirus report, a creative idea:
    “What you’re doing

    We’ll adapt the way we usually celebrate the great feast of Thanksgiving. Usually it’s 25-ish friends and family, almost everyone brings a dish to pass. This year is the pandemic re-mix, as one friend called it. Bring your fully cooked dish to our house the day before Thanksgiving. My husband and I will portion it all out into take-out containers, a little bit of everything for everybody. Then come to our garage between 1 p.m. and 3 p.m. on Thanksgiving day to pick up your portion. Go home, re-heat, and get onto Zoom at 4 p.m., when we’ll light our Thanksgiving remembrance candles, and share in a feast, separately together.

    — Barbara Steer, Ann Arbor, Mich.”

    Thanks for getting us to think creatively.

  • Ann says:

    This Covid year presents us with a unique, once in a life time, opportunity. At least that’s how I’m choosing to see it. Thanksgiving and even more so Christmas are stressful, busy times with lots of traditions we often don’t feel we can question or challenge. “But we’ve ALWAYS done it this way!!!” This year there is no guilt in saying I know we’ve always done it this way in the past, but this is our Covid year and this year it will be different.

    I have never in my adult life spent Christmas in my own house. My children have never spent Christmas in their own house. I’ve never been to my church (of 18 years) on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day! I won’t physically be there this year either (we meet virtually now), but I will be there via Zoom! And my kids will spend Christmas Eve & Day in their own house.

    I’m actually looking forward to Advent this year. Looking forward to sitting quietly in the dark, waiting. It won’t be so stressful and busy and anxiety producing running around to stores making sure I have the right gift for everyone. This year everyone gets a free pass. Good enough will be good enough. What a relief!!!

    Churches have a unique opportunity to reach people this year in a way they’ve never been able to before. We will have time to sit and listen and hear the story. Without all the noise and chaos that usually accompanies the holidays.

    I can’t wait to wait during Advent this year.

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