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?