Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. It’s the day we get to wear earth-toned sweaters, eat a bunch of deeply satisfying and comforting foods, drink wine at 11 a.m., and take multiple naps throughout the day. It’s the kickoff to the festive season, but it comes with no obligations. Just gathering, indulging, and giving thanks. Every year, I am bombarded with nostalgia for turkey days gone, whether it’s being young and spending the day with family friends or assembling an ad-hoc meal from the best available ingredients in a rural African village. As my life has metamorphosized from year to year, so has my Thanksgivings.
2020 was supposed to be a Thanksgivmas year. Since I met my husband five years ago, we have traded off Christmas and Thanksgiving between our families. We travel West to my family for one holiday and south to his for the other. Since we spent Christmas in South Dakota last year, we intended to celebrate the December holiday in Tennessee this year. That meant, Thanksgiving with my family, but we like to hit check off both holidays in a weekend.
We typically start planning for our holidays about a month in advance. We start a Google Doc with what meals we’ll have when and what snacks are necessary. We’ll also have an agenda of holiday-themed activities to do with the kids. The plan is to celebrate Thanksgiving fully on Thursday, have a transition day, and then celebrate Christmas Saturday with presents and full decorations. Because it’s a shorter stay than at Christmas, we have declared my brother’s house in Minnesota good meeting ground for my parents and eldest brother’s family coming from South Dakota and my husband and I traveling from Chicago. It’s a chaotic, rushed time, but I love it, specifically since my nieces and nephews are getting older and more involved in the celebrating.
Something was different this year. In our family group text, none of us had mentioned the upcoming holiday, other than a few scheduling changes. No one started a Google Doc or declared WE MUST DO THIS ACTIVITY. We didn’t talk about presents or plotting the cooking schedule.
Because we knew.
We knew a choice had to be made, and for a long time, none of us wanted to make it. We wanted to pretend that it would be OK, that we could celebrate Thanksgiving like it was any year. But, at some point, we could no longer ignore the blaring headlines or the CDC recommendations. COVID-19 cases were ravaging our country and celebrating Thanksgiving with people you don’t live with was an incredible risk. Then, one day in our family group text, we called it.
We cancelled our Thanksgivmas due to the surge in COVID-19 cases. We’d all stay home and try to have the best holiday we could over Zoom.
It is the safe, smart choice. Almost three-fours of the country is on the Chicago travel ban list, and Chicago is dangerously close to another lockdown. South Dakota is ground zero for COVID-19 spread, along with most of the Upper Midwest. Both Minnesota and South Dakota are red states on Chicago’s travel list, meaning we would have to quarantine for 14-days after our trip. My husband and I both work retail jobs and live paycheck-to-paycheck, so quarantining was not an option for us. Same for some of my family in South Dakota, where the governor has refused to order any kind of restrictions and they continue to have to work in public spaces. We not only risked spreading the virus to each other but also to the people that we see every day at our jobs. We could also be potentially fined for not quarantining after traveling to a state on the list.
There was a moment when I denied the risk because being able to spend the holiday with my family was too dear to me. No one would really know, and honestly, who is keeping track? We wouldn’t go anywhere outside our family’s house. We’d be an exception. We’d be fine.
But, I knew in my gut that I was being hypocritical. If I couldn’t quarantine before AND after, wouldn’t I be part of the problem? Wouldn’t I be practicing the same exceptionalism that has allowed this virus to range on? How could I think that just because it’s family that we would be immune? I knew that this was one of those moments that will have two historical sides, and I knew deep down that in order to be on the right side, I would have to give up something incredibly dear to me. It wasn’t just about keeping my family safe, but everyone around me, including people I do not or will ever know.
Still, I am not happy about it. I am heartbroken not to see my family for the holiday, but also to know I will go the entire festive season without seeing them. My mom won’t be coming to Chicago for her annual Christmas trip, I won’t get to see my little humans open their presents, I won’t be able to quote the West Wing’s Thanksgiving episode with my dad, I won’t stay up late doing puzzles with my brothers and sisters-in-law. Also, because of the great risk, we’ve cancelled our Christmas plans to visit my in-laws, whom we haven’t seen in more than a year and desperately miss. Most of my favorite Christmas traditions have been cancelled or altered, and I’ve been relegated to spend the holiday season in my small apartment with an incredibly loud upstairs neighbor.
Above all else, what I am struggling with the most is searing judgement and anger. I am so enraged that it has come to this. One of the few times I see family throughout the year has been taken away. What infuriates me the most, though, is to know that even with the CDC and expert recommendations and the countless reports, people will still ignore it. They will still travel. They will still come together with family or friends they do not live with. They will think they are fine, that they have calculated the risks, and they will come out OK. But it’s that kind of thinking that has allowed the virus to rage on like a wildfire, which will continue to put us all at even more risk. More lockdowns will come. More people will lose their jobs or be evicted. And more lives will be lost.
This situation is nuanced, and I am trying to find and give empathy where it’s needed. I know people who have decided to travel or have family travel to them. Some of them are taking the utmost precautions and have very valid reasons to see family outside of their home. There are others, though, who I think are being careless. It’s hard to say what will happen, but I have a feeling that things will be much worse come Christmas. I don’t want to come off as righteous and judgmental, but even more so than the people who are flat out denying the realities of a disease that has rocked the entire globe for a year, I feel conflicted with those who are taking risks and are taking precautions that fall short of truly being able to stop a spread. This is hard for me because my husband and I work in retail places, so we could easily be exposed by someone who thought they would be OK and were not. A lot of this is under pinned by only seeing situations from the outside, jealously, and a deep longing to see my family. All of it is mixed together in one big pile of suckiness suck. From all angles, this sucks. It sucks to know that I made a big sacrifice and others have chosen not to do the same, so this virus will continue to roar, further threatening my physical, mental, and financial health. It sucks to have become a person with so much vitriol who casts judgement without knowing the full story. It sucks to not know when this will end.
The only thing I can do now is grab on to gratitude and hope and hold on. I am thankful to have my husband and that my family and I are all safe. I am grateful for a fridge full of food that I will cook and enjoy no matter what. I am blessed to have a family that knows this is just one holiday and missing it will be worth it if we stay healthy and do not spread the virus to those around us.
I am hopeful that it will just be one holiday, that even though it will get worse before it gets better, it will get better. I’ve spent Thanksgivings alone, with roommates that were nothing more, families of boyfriends, and friends, and they’ve all meant something special in their own way. And while I love my Thanksgivings with my ever-expanding family and those little humans who continue to make me belly laugh, I know there will be more. Many, many more.
This will be a quieter holiday, and maybe that is OK. I was sad at first, then angry, but now I am at peace with our decision. It’s the first holiday that my husband and I will spend just the two of us, which in of itself is special. It’s not a typical year, so we will have an atypical Thanksgiving. We’ll eat out food, we’ll wear our comfy sweaters, we’ll Zoom with family, and we’ll know we did our part.