The impacts of the pandemic on Thanksgiving linger for a second year

Rose Bak

Here’s why it does — and what to do if you can’t have your traditional holiday.
Photo by Ashim D’Silva on Unsplash

Thanksgiving is coming soon and one thing we know for certain: it's not going to look anything like our traditional Thanksgiving celebrations. We are all sick of the never-ending pandemic. Terms like “unprecedented” and “new normal” have been overused so much they’re basically meaningless. But as hard as the past two years have been, Thanksgiving seems to be hitting the country particularly hard.

As governors and health officials encourage us to either cancel or seriously curtail the holiday, people are mourning. They’re angry. They’re trying to decide how much they want to risk to create a semblance of normalcy after months of suffering. When you haven't seen friends and family for eight months, it can be hard to imagine also skipping your traditional holidays.

Why is Thanksgiving so important to us?

In the U.S. the Thanksgiving holiday is based on the fabled 1621 meal that was shared between pilgrims and Native Americans to celebrate a good harvest. Although that event isn’t as idyllic and simple as we were all taught in grade school, it’s lived on in our collective memory as an ode to family, friendship, and good food.

Although we don’t know for sure, historians believe the original Thanksgiving meal looked very different than the foods we commemorate the holiday with today. For one thing, there was no green bean casserole. There likely wasn’t even stuffing. The meal likely included things like seafood, deer, berries, pumpkin, and fall vegetables.

In 1777 George Washington called for a national Thanksgiving holiday to be held the last Thursday of November as a way to recognize the end of the Revolutionary War and the new constitution.

The holiday has continued ever since, eventually morphing to be the official kick-off to the holiday season that lasts through New Year’s Day.

With such a long history, it’s easy to see why Thanksgiving feels important to people. It’s also unique in that unlike holidays like Christmas or Easter, it’s completely non-denominational. Thanksgiving can be celebrated by anyone regardless of race or religion.

Thanksgiving is an idealized holiday in many minds, making it more important for some people than other holidays may be. There's no expectation for gifts or activities other than to cook a big meal and bond over food. The day before Thanksgiving is typically the busiest travel day of the year, as families who may not see each other all year get together to share turkey and football and Black Friday shopping.

For the first time ever, this year many of us won't be with our friends and families. We may be wondering how to celebrate the holiday in this pandemic world.
Photo by Jed Owen on Unsplash

What if your Thanksgiving will be different this year?

For most of us, this Thanksgiving holiday will be a significant break from tradition. With travel curtailed, limits on large gatherings, restaurant closures, and concerns about those who are most at risk from COVID-19 many people are looking for ways to safely celebrate the holiday, even if it’s on a small scale.

You don't have to completely forego Thanksgiving. Here are some things you can consider to celebrate Thanksgiving in a new way this year:

  1. Cook a Thanksgiving meal, even if it’s just you. You don’t need a giant stuffed turkey to have a great meal. Pick your favorites from the traditional meal and plan your meal around the things that bring you the most joy. Consider purchasing a turkey breast instead of a giant turkey, or ordering a meal from your local grocery store. Bring out the fancy china and appreciate every bite.
  2. Have a Zoom event. Sure, we are all sick of video meetings, but at least a video check-in can help you create a community with friends and family who you can’t see in real life. Pick a time and spend an hour or two sharing desserts or wine while you catch up with your loved ones far and near. Share your favorite stories of Thanksgiving past.
  3. Have Thanksgiving outside. Social distancing is much easier in the wide-open spaces of your backyard. Weather permitting, serve your food outside and spread out to eat. Or create a garage Thanksgiving by opening all the doors and settling into different sections of the garage to eat. The fresh air will help reduce exposure.
  4. Watch a Thanksgiving movie or holiday episodes of your favorite shows. If you have some movies or shows that you watch every year, keep up the traditions. Try something timeless like "A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving" or "Home for the Holidays". You can also use the new features on some streaming platforms to watch your movies and shows with loved ones remotely. Add your commentary, like a Thanksgiving Mystery Science Theater.
  5. Take a yoga class. Most yoga studios are offering classes online right now, and they often offer a special holiday class. Regardless of what your other plans are for the day, a nice gentle morning stretch coupled with meditation will help you feel better, guaranteed.
  6. Go for a hike in the woods. Take your dog and anyone else in your household. Connecting with nature is good for your soul. Breathe deep, kick some leaves, stretch your arms wide, and turn your face to the sky. Enjoy your stroll.
  7. Help someone less fortunate. With volunteerism down due to the pandemic, social service agencies are struggling to find volunteers to help prepare, serve, and/or deliver holiday meals. Cheer yourself up by helping bring some Thanksgiving joy to your neighbors who are homeless or can’t leave home. Contact your local homeless services, senior services agency, or faith-based organizations for ideas on where to volunteer.
  8. Keep yourself busy. The best remedy for sadness can be to distract yourself. Get a start on your Christmas presents by doing some crafts. Paint a room. Do a fall clean-up in your garden. Reorganize your closets. Practice an instrument. Read a book. Learn a new skill on YouTube. Take a nap.
  9. Do nothing. Over the years I have created a perfect holiday for myself, and it involves me doing nothing. My pandemic Thanksgiving will look just like my pre-pandemic holiday and I’m fine with that.

Whatever you decide to do this Thanksgiving, take a moment to offer some gratitude. Sure, it can be hard to cultivate gratitude when things seem grim, but life isn’t always all good or all bad. Look for the moments of joy and peace, celebrate your health, and the fact that you have family and friends that you will actually miss this holiday.

Here’s hoping that things are back to normal for next year’s holiday.

#thanksgiving #pandemic

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Rose Bak is a freelance writer who lives in Portland, Oregon with her family and special needs dogs. She writes on a variety of topics including local news, homelessness, poverty, relationships, yoga, and aging. She is also a published author of romantic fiction. For more of Rose's work, visit her website at or follow her on social media @AuthorRoseBak.

Portland, OR

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