In a “normal” year, Samantha Rice and her husband, Tom Rice, would kick off Thanksgiving weekend by buckling their two small children into car seats and driving from their home in North Carolina to Maryland. After navigating holiday traffic and the many stops a baby and toddler require, they would all arrive exhausted. They would have negotiated in advance whether they were staying with Samantha’s family or Tom’s. And on Thanksgiving Day, they would cart the children from one relative’s house to another, eating Thanksgiving dinner twice to please everyone.
“It’s just a huge stressor,” Samantha says. “Managing two little kids with different nap schedules and you still have to cook because you’re expected to bring something.” She remembers last year, sitting alone in a back room with her overwhelmed toddler during a holiday celebration, being able to hear everyone else talking and laughing over dessert. “It was really lonely, and I remember thinking ‘Why did I go through all this just to sit in a room alone?’ ”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued updated guidelines Thursday urging Americans not to travel or gather with people outside their household. For many, this means their normal holiday traditions and expectations have been completely upended. But for some, like Samantha, there’s a upside to that disruption. She will be following CDC guidance and staying home, celebrating Thanksgiving as a family of four. “It’s really nice to have an excuse not to go through all that,” Samantha says. “We’ll miss seeing our families, but this is going to be the most relaxed holiday I’ve had in ages. It’s going to be cozy.”
“I am looking forward to Thanksgiving Day more than I have in 15 years,” says Melanie Phillips, who lives in New York and will spending the day with just her husband and kids. “I am looking forward to the opportunity to choose how we get to spend the day instead of exhausting ourselves pleasing the extended family.”
That particular relief is one perhaps most acutely felt by women.
As Brigid Schulte, author of “Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time,” noted in a 2013 opinion piece, the holidays are “the most stressful time of the year” for women.
This year presents the opportunity for less cooking, less cleaning and less emotional labor.
Nell Minow, who lives in the Virginia suburbs of D.C., remembers the Thanksgiving meal she cooked for 10 people, all of whom had different food restrictions: “Two different kinds of vegetarians, one diabetic, one no wheat. And no one really likes turkey but everyone seemed to want it because tradition,” she says.
Not only is she pleased to just be cooking a meal for two this year, the surge of interest in virtual holiday connections means she will have the chance to celebrate over Zoom with family members across countries and time zones.
One thing is for sure: This holiday season won’t look like any of the ones before. Instead of having some central model of the ideal holiday that we’re all trying to emulate, this year might be a unique opportunity to let go of that picture-perfect holiday in our minds and consider what we really want. “Patterns aren’t always good,” says Rachel Singer, a counseling psychologist specializing in anxiety and familial discord. “This year may present an opportunity to get unstuck from negative patterns, and to think about what would make the holiday personally meaningful.”
“Anytime you have a disruption, that’s a core opportunity for change,” said the Rev. Amanda Poppei, a minister in Arlington, Va. “Even though we didn’t choose this disruption, it can still be an opportunity.”
Trying to pull off a watered-down version of the holiday traditions we’ve followed in the past may end up leaving us feeling let down. It may be more helpful to reframe our thinking away from a deficit model to imagining the possibilities this year opens up for us.
This attitude is embraced by Cocoa Alexis, who says that she frankly prefers celebrating holidays alone, on her own terms. The difference this year? She won’t be the only one flying solo, and she won’t have to defend or explain her choice to others. “This year I’ll be having my intentional, nonjudgmental, non-explaining Thanksgiving. I’m calling it my private island Thanksgiving.”
Alexis, who is based in New York, ordered various snacks from around the world. She’s going to turn up the heat, put on her bikini and imagine she’s on her own private island.
“I’ll have my Afro out and my bikini on, and I’m going to give thanks for me.”
Poppei points out that for some, going “home” to their family of origin might be particularly stressful. The year of the Zoom Thanksgiving offers a chance to establish boundaries that would be trickier in person.
So how can we embrace and make the most of this peculiar holiday season?
1. Take the time to grieve what you’re missing about your usual celebrations. “It’s important to acknowledge what’s missing,” says Singer, to shift your mind-set.
2. Make the most of the technology at your disposal. Poppei recommends using video calls with family members to ask questions, such as “What were Thanksgivings like when you were a kid?” She notes that “children benefit from hearing stories about family resilience,” so ask older relatives about less-than-perfect holidays in the past.
3. Keep a journal and record what feels different about the holidays this year, recommends Singer. This will give you a chance to reflect and decide for next year what changes you might want to keep.
Randi Laird’s normal Thanksgiving plans involve three dinners spread over multiple days, and hours of cooking for each. This year, they’re not just following distancing guidelines; they’re actually quarantining where they live in Mississippi. The whole family is recovering from covid-19. “Instead of running around, we’ll be ordering a meal from a local business, putting the tree up early and spending the day in our pajamas,” she says.
Ultimately, the best way to find the positives in this strange holiday season is what Singer calls “a reframing of the cognitive schema toward gratitude.”
Identifying things to be grateful for actually can help rewire our brains, boosting our mood. Which, interestingly enough, is what the sentiment around Thanksgiving was supposed to be about in the first place.